As we enter the second winter of COVID, we know that cases will rise as people spend more time indoors and gather for the holidays. Even with extremely effective vaccines and booster doses widely available, and even though kids five years and older are now eligible to get the vaccine, elected officials and public health experts warn us to be ever-vigilant.
A recent New York Times piece quoted an expert in airborne transmission of viruses suggesting that, in order to ensure the safety of the vaccinated, boosted adults at a Thanksgiving gathering, the hosts could have the merely partly vaccinated nine- and 10-year olds “wear masks, eat quickly, and stay away from the older adults while eating.” This, I suppose, is the pan(dem)ic version of the “kids table” at Thanksgiving.
Even this arrangement is preferable to what many kids are experiencing at school. In New York City, where I live, temperatures were just above freezing the day before Thanksgiving. Even though restaurants offer heat lamps, few diners were willing to brave the weather outdoors. But in many city elementary schools, following the official guidance, students ate lunch outside, sitting on the ground. The NYC DOE did clarify that if students are really uncomfortable, they can ask to go sit inside. As though it’s reasonable or fair to expect a quiet, maybe-not-fully-English-speaking kindergartener to push back hard against an authority figure.
There’s a famous quote, widely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Children are our most vulnerable, and by this measure we have been found lacking.
If our main focus is to contain the spread of COVID this winter, making kindergarteners eat lunch on the pavement in the cold is about the least effective measure we could choose. We could close indoor dining and bars. We could shutter health clubs again. We could lock down like we did in April 2020. Nobody is suggesting doing that because adults would wind up bearing the costs.
Our masking requirements for kids in schools far surpass what most adults are willing to bear. On November 1, a group of New York parents organized the #masklikeakid pledge, in which adults were asked to wear masks under the same conditions for a single day that school kids do every day. This meant no breaks, no taking it off after exercise (even if it’s sweaty), and only sipping water by slipping a straw under the mask. This was designed to point out the hypocrisy of those who casually say “kids are resilient” or call for continued masking children out of “an abundance of caution,” even as they live lives largely free from COVID restrictions. Indeed, only 42% of people who support K-12 mask mandates have worn a mask longer than three consecutive hours even once in their lives. For all adults, the number drops to 35%.
The over-the-top masking requirements are a symptom of a long-standing problem, laid bare by the pandemic: Time and again, the well-being of kids is sacrificed to satisfy the anxieties of adults.
This is particularly true in urban districts. Over the past few weeks, large districts have announced abrupt, unplanned school closures due to teacher burnout. In the cases of some, there has been a thin pretext that the closures are COVID-related. Chicago ostensibly closed its schools for students to get vaccinated, and Detroit closed schools for “deep cleaning” (though we’ve known for over a year that the virus doesn’t spread through surface transmission). In Seattle, the district had too many teachers who decided to take a three-day weekend. They couldn’t cover the requests and presumably, couldn’t say no. It’s widely accepted that remote instruction was incredibly hard on kids, particularly struggling learners. But again, when push comes to shove, the needs of the adults win out.
So my question is, who will be a champion for children? Theoretically, the elected leaders and their appointees should take up the charge, but they have been noticeably silent on these issues. The responsibility has fallen to parents. They have taken it up through activism, at the ballot box, and by voting with their feet. Hopefully it makes a difference. But it shouldn’t be this hard to begin with.