Putting students at needless risk with hit-or-miss masking should be unthinkable

·4 min read

Now that we know that the delta variant galloping through Kansas City can be more easily spread by even those who have been vaccinated than earlier versions of the coronavirus could be, Mayor Quinton Lucas had no choice but to issue a new mask mandate.

To those who complain that the guidance keeps changing, that’s because the virus keeps changing. And will keep right on mutating until a lot more of us get vaccinated. All of the vaccines approved for emergency use remain highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death, including from the delta variant.

What next? Schools that haven’t already done so need to move to protect students, teachers and staff, too.

Most districts — Kansas City Public Schools and Kansas City Kansas Public Schools are exceptions — have not yet decided to require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks in their buildings. Leaders in the Hickman Mills district, which is in Kansas City, say they will follow the mayor’s lead but haven’t announced that publicly yet.

“The district wants to do all it can to keep students, staff and our community as safe as possible,” Hickman Mills spokeswoman Marissa Cleaver Wamble said in a statement.

Across the state line in Kansas, the Shawnee Mission school district is the only one of the six districts in Johnson County requiring students to wear masks this fall. And that’s only for elementary school children — kids younger than 12 — who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. In other districts in the county, masks are optional.

Have these districts forgotten that when students returned to in-person classes after a year of learning remotely, even with mask-wearing required, many schools saw a number of COVID infection outbreaks? In several cases, schools were closed briefly because so many students and teachers were quarantined after being exposed to the virus. That’s what will surely happen again, maybe in greater numbers, if kids come back to school with no mask requirement in place. But that doesn’t have to happen.

Again, remember that the delta variant of the virus has changed the game. Until now, health leaders have said coronavirus was less of a threat to young children. But now many of those getting very sick are children. It’s not that the delta variant is more likely to affect children than adults, but that children under 12 are more likely to be infected because they haven’t gotten a vaccine. And the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 cases are among the unvaccinated.

The delta variant replicates twice as fast inside the body, making people sicker faster.

Cases of COVID-19 here are at a point where all residents of Missouri and most of eastern Kansas should wear masks indoors, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC now says that everyone — including students in kindergarten through high school, teachers and staff — should wear a mask in school, regardless of vaccination status. After that new guidance came out on Tuesday, Park Hill School District leaders put out a statement “strongly recommending” everyone wear a mask.

School officials said they were following the CDC guidance, but they aren’t. What they are doing is passing the decision on to parents and putting students and their staff at risk.

The CDC wasn’t advising that municipal and school leaders recommend masks. It was saying, ‘You need to make this happen.’ That requires a mandate.

Districts ought to know by now that a recommendation only means some will do the smart and right thing. Others won’t. Which is exactly what got us here. And it isn’t as though required vaccinations in schools is an all-new concept.

In Missouri, only 40.9% of the population has been fully vaccinated. In Kansas, it’s 44%. These low rates are not due to any lack of accessibility — vaccines are available, free and lifesaving.

Knowing you can die from this thing, as some 611,000 Americans already have, and still refusing the shot at this point is more obstinance than hesitance. Putting children who can’t yet get the vaccine at needless risk with hit-and-miss masking policies should be unthinkable.

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