Guest columnist Gregg Schwartz: The never-ending Northampton school mask mandate

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Published: 8/17/2022 7:27:59 PM
Modified: 8/17/2022 7:24:33 PM

It was very upsetting to learn last week that a member of the Northampton Public Schools’ School Committee tried to hastily push through a COVID masking policy that went against recommendations from the CDC, medical departments, the Northampton Health Department, as well as every single federal and state recommendation.

This policy uses fear mongering as its premise: Unless we enforce strict masking requirements, schools will be forced to close. As I write this article, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Public Health stated that masks will not be a requirement this school year. Not only is it not a requirement, Massachusetts is not recommending it, which is even more explicit. Contact tracing, test-to-stay, and screening testing are also not recommended.

All of these stipulations are shockingly still a part of the policy being drafted for our kids in the Northampton schools, while the vast majority of us enjoy our normal summer vacations, family trips, summer camp, etc.

This fringe policy would put Northampton well outside the norm of nearly every school district in the country, one that would keep our students in masks much of the time in the year to come. We are now in year three of the pandemic and the CDC has rightfully acknowledged that this is something we are going to be living with for a long time.

Our policy needs to evolve with it. There are vaccines, treatments, and the virus itself has evolved. These solutions are now mitigating COVID risks, but what about the risks of long-term masking on our kids? This continues to be ignored by some members on our School Committee, those that we should have the most faith in to watch out for our children’s best interests.

Even Merridith O’Leary, Northampton’s public health commissioner, who has long advised the School Committee in regards to masking (and has taken an extremely conservative approach), has been quoted at the end of last school year saying, “We recognize that masks can impact speech-language development, emotional development, and mental health.” She acknowledged “the potential long-term risk of masking in this age group” and stated, “masks should be encouraged, but optional at this time.”

It appears as though the School Committee might even be willing to depart from O’Leary’s stance now as well.

The CDC scientists and doctors understand that the consequences of long-term mask-wearing now far outweigh the benefits. The hard science is showing that masks have a detrimental effect on learning, social development, cognitive development, and the psychological effects keep becoming clearer and clearer. Even our health department that took a strict approach changed its tone and understood the damage this masking policy was causing. The medium risk trigger in this proposed policy for masks would effectively be a mask mandate for much of the year. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

We in Northampton push liberal policies to the limit and that is a very good thing. When it comes to gay rights, minority rights, or trans rights, you can not go too far. We must seek equity and equality and repair the damage that has been done to marginalized people. We must do everything in our power to update the system to ensure equality.

However, we can not apply this same kind of push-it-to-the-max thinking in COVID caution, making masks a nearly permanent fixture in our schools. Protecting us from COVID is not the same as other liberal policies. It requires a different approach.

We owe it to our children, each of us, to see past our own emotion and fear, and to have the bravery to follow the clear, indisputable science of our best doctors and researchers and of the CDC. That hard science absolutely says that masks, unless we are in “red,” are unwarranted and are hurting our kids. The policy sent forth by the CDC balances caution with the needs of the schools and students. It also includes policy on quarantines and exposure combined with testing and masking, when needed. It’s a policy that won’t keep our children in masks or cause school closures.

Here in this legislative body, we can not be guided by emotion or fear. We may make personal decisions from that place of fear or emotion. But we absolutely can not legislate from that place. We can not make decisions for other people from our own fear. When we are deciding policy that affects the lives of others, we have a duty, a solemn responsibility, to make decisions and legislate only from hard solid science. We must follow the guidance of the CDC, the guidance from our universities, and research hospitals. We must heed the research. And the research is very clear.

A policy that leans heavily on mask-wearing will cause more damage than benefit.

Gregg Schwartz lives in Northampton.
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