Guest columnist Breanne D. Schwartz: A call for optional masking in schools

  • Rules requiring teachers to wear face masks in schools helped slow transmission of the coronavirus, a new study examining German schools finds. Dreamstime/TNS

Published: 5/20/2022 6:01:57 PM

My children are too young now to remember life before the COVID-19 pandemic, but every day that they attend school in Northampton amid a sea of masked faces, my heart breaks for them.

It breaks for all that has been lost over the last two years, and now, especially for everything my kids will lose if the mask mandate continues. As a speech-language pathologist, the anguish runs deep for my students as well. Their paths have been wrought with extensive challenge. All of our kids deserve change.

The Northampton School District has failed to modify its decision-making during the country’s “post-pandemic phase,” as Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief advisor to the president, calls it. Six weeks ago, largely as a result of public dissent, the School Committee voted in favor of masks being optional.

However, on May 9, Superintendent John Provost reinstated the mask mandate, without consultation with the committee, proving that community discourse on the matter should be far from over. This column follows up on my first piece from March 24, titled, “Unmasking the problem with the mask mandate in our schools.”

The CDC has now put forth guidelines for areas of low, medium, and high transmission that include recommendations to mask indoors only for areas of high transmission, color-coded in red. Massachusetts and the city of Northampton dropped its indoor mask mandates in March. Even the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the EEC no longer recommend indoor mask-wearing. To call Northampton Public Schools’ approach excessive of late, would be an understatement.

In a School Committee meeting on May 12, Merridith O’Leary, director of the city’s Department of Health, postulated that we will never be “in red,” due to our high vaccination rates and the treatments that are now available for those who become ill.

Remarkably, in the same meeting, O’Leary still insisted upon the continued use of masking in schools and dodged multiple requests from School Committee members to provide suggested metrics, upon which decisions about masks could be made moving forward. For the district to enact policy that is so impactful on the lives of its students, without transparency, is a blatant abuse of power.

Some of us still rest on the misguided assurance that there is “no scientific evidence” that masks negatively impact language, learning, or social-emotional development. In reality, there is no evidence because any sort of pre-dated study exploring this question would be considered unethical, cruel, and certainly illegal. Only a colossal global issue like the COVID-19 pandemic could have entered us all into an unwitting social experiment such as this.

However, most recently a research article has emerged from Brown University, entitled, “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Early Child Cognitive Development: Initial Findings in a Longitudinal Observational Study of Child Health.” Researchers discuss an ongoing study that began in 2009. It has opened a unique window into what is happening to the brains of children living under chronic pandemic restrictions, including extended masking.

When researchers compared assessments between pre-pandemic and pandemic years, they identified a seismic drop in children’s cognitive abilities. Researchers write, “Results highlight that even in the absence of direct SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19 illness, the environmental changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are significantly and negatively affecting infant and child development.”

Altered neurodevelopment that we have yet to fully understand, is not just fathomable, but probable. Many parents, including myself, should wish to unenroll their children from this unintended social experiment at the first, reasonably safe and responsible opportunity. That time is now. That time was months ago.

When subject to a mask mandate, our children attempt daily interactions with their teachers and peers against the tide of muffled voices, indiscernible facial expressions, and absent visual cues. Through the eyes of a professional in the field of communication, this has been an incredible hindrance since the onset of the pandemic.

Now, it has become nothing less than an act of oppression against the youngest members of our society, who have the least power to speak up. When national data released us from the shackles of restriction months ago, children should have been the first to fly free, not the last. The kids of Northampton are still waiting for their lives back.

Now is the time for parents to advocate for their kids. Whether or not the mask mandate is arbitrarily lifted, we must speak on their behalf. If we remain quiet, there will be no end in sight, despite state and federal stipulations. Our voices, and our children’s voices, need to be heard. Let’s give our children the freedom they rightfully deserve.

To participate in child advocacy, email NPS district leaders and share your opinions. Contact Pioneer Valley MaskChoice at maskchoicenorthampton@gmail.com. Talk to other community members, parents, and students to finally unmask this hidden conversation.

Breanne D. Schwartz is founder and owner of Northampton Speech Therapy, a pediatric private practice in Northampton. She is an ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist and licensed practitioner in the state of Massachusetts.

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