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Editorials

Mass. Shouldn’t Let Angry Parents Decide School Mask Rules

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Fierce debate over mask mandates has ricocheted throughout the nation, so it's no surprise that related petitions, protests, and even arrests have made their way to every crevice of the country (not unlike a crumpled-up mask itself, the season’s hottest litter). Though we might not associate erudite Cambridge with PTA shouting matches over masking, our K-12 schools are no strangers to such hostilities.

Harvard Law School graduate Robert M. Fojo has filed several lawsuits on behalf of Children's Health Rights of Massachusetts: a new advocacy organization created solely “to fight illegal and cruel school mask mandates.” Run by parent volunteers (who wish to stay anonymous), CHRM is challenging individual mask mandates in school districts across the state, and taking on the statewide rule that masks be worn in school buildings. The statewide mandate allows, against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, for schools with an overall vaccination rate of 80 percent or higher to unmask indoors. But even this porous mandate has drawn the CHRM’s ire.

We appreciate room for flexibility in any set of Covid-19 guidelines; after all, public health is a moving target. But we sincerely hope that the new loophole the state has introduced to its mask mandate is not merely a response to political pushback, like that CHRM is applying. Unfortunately, the red flags abound. According to the Boston Globe “When a Massachusetts General Hospital doctor asked in an email why the state was not following CDC guidance, a top state health official was blunt: pressure.”

Public health decisions should be made in a manner that seeks, first and foremost, to protect the health of the public. And while Massachusetts’ now porous school mask mandate may be encouraging to adults eager for school kids to unmask, we must also remember that we are — at the end of the day — still stuck in a global pandemic. Buckling to political pressure then walking back protective public health measures risks repeating a mistake made multiple times through the pandemic: assuming Covid is through, only for it to come back with a vengeance.

The case being built by Fojo, CHRM’s lawyer, centers on a contentious argument that masks are both ineffective for stopping the spread of Covid-19 and potentially harmful to children. (Many, many, many health organizations disagree). He also argues that mask mandates “infringe on parents’ fundamental rights concerning their children.” Without passing legal judgment, we would like to point to the long list of other freedoms that fail to pass the schoolhouse door intact. Mask mandates may be a burden, but so are dress codes, warrantless locker searches, and general restrictions on kids' speech. Mask mandates, having comparable “costs'' and more tangible benefits, have our support.

So, still convinced of the utility of mask mandates, we hope Fojo’s suit fails. Yet, as crisis measures linger for months and, now, years, challenging the government’s authority to impose them is a natural — and even healthy — response.

Parents, including the anonymous ones behind CHRM, are likely genuinely confused and concerned for their children. There has been a tremendous amount of evolving science on the coronavirus over the past two years. Heaps of Covid misinformation isn’t helping.

Unknowns such as how the virus might mutate next, and how well people comply with mitigation measures like vaccination and masking, have made this pandemic’s course hard to predict. That uncertainty not only makes it hard to craft good policy; it makes that policy, once crafted, hard to explain and hard to understand.

If some parents want to challenge the efficacy and legitimacy of mask mandates, we welcome lawsuits as a legitimate channel for doing so — even if we don’t agree with the ends they seek to achieve. In a healthy democracy, citizens should question governmental impositions, and the deference due in times of crisis should be expected to wane at least a little when those crises drag on.

However the suit unfolds, we encourage school districts to be transparent about their decision-making processes around health and safety during the pandemic. By laying out the variables in their process, officials can at least try to convince parents that the decisions they are making are reasonable, and perhaps even correct. As CDC guidance and the public health situation evolves, officials could also link mask policies to local vaccination and Covid positivity rates in order to make those policies feel less arbitrary and to incentivize compliance. An eventual easing of restrictions based on metrics, not political pressure, would be welcome.

Lawful avenues for parents to express their discontent with masking provide an important alternative to the indefensible options of threats or harassment increasingly lobbied at school boards. Still, public health policy must be directed by doctors, scientists, and public health officials — not the mob.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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