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As US schools lift mask mandates, some parents cry foul

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People protest against Covid-19 mask mandates in Boston on January 5, 2022./AFP
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Feb 10, 2022 - 06:28 AM

ARLINGTON — As more and more US states lift Covid-19 mask mandates in public schools due to declining infection rates, some parents are up in arms over this relaxation in health restrictions.

School mask mandates are highly political in today’s divided America.

Wearing a face covering to fight the spread of the virus is mandatory in 16 states, most of them run by Democrats.

Much of the conservative right, egged on by former president Donald Trump, says this obligation infringes on people’s individual freedom. And Republican-led states such as Texas and Florida have even banned mask mandates.

But things are starting to change, now that new cases of infection have been falling for nearly a month.

Four states run by Democrats — Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon — have announced they will soon stop ordering students, teachers and staff to wear masks. California says it is working with education officials to update its recommendations on masks.

In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin signed a decree late last month allowing parents to send their kids to school without masks.

“This is about who is best positioned to make a decision with regards to their child’s health,” he said.

But a court has issued a stay against that decree in response to a lawsuit filed by seven school districts. Some schools, mainly in Democratic strongholds near the US capital Washington, have threatened to send maskless children home or make them isolate at school.

‘Calculated risk’ 

Virginia came under Republican rule during elections in November but has a strong Democratic minority. The state is a good illustration of the national divide on mask-wearing as the Omicron variant fades.

Carrie Lukas, a mother of five children aged seven to 16 who go to school in Fairfax county near Washington, said school districts opposed to the governor’s decree have not “prioritized kids,” whom she said have suffered a lot in this pandemic.

Lukas points to “evidence of tremendous learning loss” after a year of trying to learn online from home, and also believes wearing a mask is detrimental to social relations among adolescents.

“These are tough times for young teenagers when you’re not able to see whether kids are smiling at you or frowning at you,” Lukas said.

Lukas, president of a conservative group called the Independent Women’s Forum, said “there’s been just an absolute avalanche of research showing that these masks don’t work” at stopping the spread of Covid in schools. She also cited the fact children are less vulnerable to the coronavirus than other age groups.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released in September 2021 concluded that risk of infection was 3.5 times higher in schools with no mask mandate than in those that did have them. But the results of this study have been challenged, among others by non-conservative media.

Lukas advocates taking a calculated risk against Covid.

“We take a lot of calculated risks as a parent all the time,” she said. “We all know that there are some risks, but we allow free people to make their own decisions.”

Pandemic was ‘politicized’ 

But other parents say collective responsibility should come first.

“When an individual’s choice impacts the health of somebody else, our individual freedoms stop when they impact the individual rights of another person,” said Amber Bowmer, a 42-year-old substitute teacher.

She and 12 other parents in Chesapeake, in eastern Virginia, filed suit in the state supreme court on grounds the governor had overstepped his legal authority in ordering schools to admit kids without masks.

Bowmer, a mother of kids aged 11 and 14, is at high risk because she suffers from long Covid after catching the virus early in the pandemic.

“I have developed severe asthma that is still uncontrolled and any type of upper respiratory infection is very risky for me,” she said.

Lukas and Bowmer both say they are sorry that masks have become such a hot-button political issue in the country with highest Covid death toll anywhere in the world, with more than 900,000 fatalities.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been politicized, and that has been detrimental to humanity,” Bowmer said.

Virginia has also barred its universities from denying non-vaccinated students the right to go to class.

Lukas for her part criticized school district officials who “just don’t want to comply with an order from a governor that they don’t support.”

But the imminent end of mask mandates in states run by Democrats, she said, shows “the dam is breaking among the left.”

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