Analysis: Want a Mostly Normal School Year? Get Kids to Wear Masks!

Photo by kevajefimija/iStock

My 10-year-old son has serious, medically intensive disabilities. Due to a genetic syndrome that affected the growth of his airway, he has a tracheostomy. He also uses a ventilator—a machine that breathes for him—at night. The nature of his disabilities makes him extremely vulnerable to serious respiratory infections. With a tracheostomy, the germs that would normally get caught by the upper respiratory system have a first-class ticket straight into the lungs. The kind of germs that give other kids the sniffles land my son in the pediatric intensive care unit with pneumonia. As a result, our family has been very cautious about COVID-19 because our son is at risk of serious complications.

Our local school district, Clovis Unified, returned to in-person classes last November, well before most other large school districts in California made the transition. We took COVID-19 precautions very seriously, due to my son being extremely vulnerable to infection. Despite everyone’s best efforts, distance learning simply didn’t work for my son. In the physical classroom, his hearing aids can sync up with the teacher’s voice, and he’s able to tune out the background noise and focus on the sounds that matter. In the digital classroom, his hearing disability made it impossible for him to reliably listen, comprehend, and interact with his classmates. Our desire to keep him safe from a potential COVID-19 infection ran headlong against our desire to provide him with an education.

We made the decision to send our son back to in-person school last year despite his vulnerability to infection because our district came up with a reasonable, safe plan to make it possible: Every student had to wear a mask.  Although we were nervous about sending him back, parenting a medically complex child has taught us that there are never any perfect decisions; we can only make the best decision with the information and tools we have at the time. In-person education for school-age children should be one of our highest priorities as a society. We decided that our son needed to discontinue remote learning for the sake of his education, and universal indoor masking made it possible for us to return him to the classroom.

Despite our worries about COVID-19 transmission at school, last year was the healthiest my son has ever been through the winter cold and flu season. Over the previous ten years, we’d planned our winters with the assumption that he would get pneumonia and spend big chunks of time at the hospital. In a classroom of 40 sniffling kids, germs always found a way to get to him. But last year, much to our surprise and relief, being in a classroom of masked students held the germs at bay. My son made it through the entire school year during a global respiratory pandemic without so much as a sniffle.

Masking in the classroom during the last school year wasn’t perfect, but adherence was noticeably better than the masking we saw adults manage on their own in most public spaces. Children are smart and capable of learning, and our teachers are capable of correcting children’s behavior in a way that reinforces good mask wearing and hand hygiene habits. Schools have figured out workarounds and effective teaching methods for students with disabilities who have difficulty wearing traditional masks. Even though my son’s breathing is so impaired that he uses a ventilator for half the day, he’s entirely unfazed by wearing a mask. We’ve checked his respiration rate, oxygenation and carbon dioxide saturations with and without a mask on, and even with his impaired lung function, wearing a mask doesn’t measurably affect his ability to breathe.

Just as we were gearing up for a mostly safe year back at school, the Clovis Unified school board decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and create unnecessary confusion over which mask policies would be enforced, despite clear state guidance. After a series of board meetings where unmasked parents and children spoke out about the entirely made up dangers of masking and minimized the entirely real dangers of COVID-19 infection, our district announced that parents would be able to exempt their children from wearing masks or face shields in the classroom just by filling out a form. Rather than focus on the very real challenges of the upcoming school year, our district opted to devote valuable time and resources to appeasing a minority of parents and community members who oppose masks in classrooms for political reasons. Following a predictable outcry from local hospitals and public health professionals, the district backtracked and announced that it would mostly comply with state regulations on masking.

Sadly, this battle over masks at school is playing out all over the state, and medically fragile children are caught in the middle. Local school districts are speaking in vague terms about “local control” of education, but what they really seem to want is all of the credit for opening schools in person with no responsibility to run them safely. California has rightly prioritized a return to in-person instruction, and key to making this safe is near-universal masking indoors. It’s true some students are unable to wear masks due to the nature of their disabilities. But that makes it even more important for children and adults who can wear a mask to do so, as this protects vulnerable students who need accommodations.

We’ve navigated the special education system for years, and the process of getting the school district to set up our child with the supports he needed to attend general education classes at our neighborhood elementary school has never been simple. We have turned over reams of medical records and physician’s orders to get his Individualized Education Plan and Individualized Health Plan in place to make it safe for him to attend school. The district has always required proof of disabilities to offer accommodations, and it has frequently argued with families over the specifics of both. My son attends school with a nurse, and at the start of every school year, we must submit medical documentation to get permission for him to do so.  When the district initially announced that parents could opt their children out of masks without asking for a doctor’s note or going through the paperwork that is required for every other disability accommodation, it was a slap in the face to families like mine.

The state of California made the right decision to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks for all students and staff in indoor classrooms. Now, the state needs to intervene to ensure the safety of children in school districts that have decided to play fast and loose with reopening protocols. Children under 12 are still too young to be vaccinated, and we’re starting the school year with no clear timeline on when the vaccine might be available to our elementary-age students. Although teens are eligible for the vaccine, fewer than 50 percent of Californians ages 12-17 have received it—hardly enough to stop a school-based outbreak. Requiring students to wear masks in indoor classroom spaces is a simple way to make in-person school this year safe for everyone. School districts need to prioritize in-person education and student safety and stop fighting the state’s common sense mask regulations.

Jennifer McLelland has a bachelor’s degree in public policy and management from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in criminology from California State University, Fresno. She worked for the Fresno Police Department in patrol for eight years. She is currently a stay-at-home mother and paid caregiver through the In Home Supportive Services program.  She is active in advocating for disability rights and home- and community-based services.

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