Let’s Talk About Masks

When COVID hit, I thought that we needed to close schools for two weeks, but then prioritize kids, over other forms of businesses and activities. Close bars, open schools was my motto. Opening schools was so important to me that I was willing to tolerate whatever safety measures — both real safety precautions and hygiene theater alike — just to get bums in chairs in schools.

Now schools are open for the most part, except for in evil places like Flint, Michigan. So, the debate has now turned to masks, and I’ve been forced to think about them. Yesterday, I tweeted:

That tweet is getting too much attention; I had to mute the thread, because my phone was constantly buzzing me. And some of the responses were from woo-woo’s. So, let’s chat about it here. No woo-woo’s allowed.

On Monday, a judge on Long Island ruled that the governor’s mask mandate in schools was unlawful. By Wednesday, the mandate was back in effect, but that might be temporary. I’m not sure. Things are in flux. I have friends who teach out there, and they are very concerned.

Meanwhile, the anti-mask people here in New Jersey are energized by this decision and are heavily lobbying state and local officials to change their policy. They said that their children’s rights are being violated, and that school officials are hypocritical. They are re-posting pictures that teachers are putting up on social media of themselves maskless, while on vacations and at conferences and with their families in the community. They are asking why the kids have to be masked all day, when the teachers are maskless everywhere else.

So, where am I on all of this? Personally, masks don’t bother me, because I only have to use them for a few minutes a day. We wore them a lot while in Vermont, because they kept our faces warm. They have no impact on three of us here.

While Ian, my son with autism, doesn’t have any sensory issues with masks and never complains about them, his social skills have become really bad since the pandemic. It’s mostly because of isolation and the complete breakdown of public school’s special education programs. Masks probably don’t help either. Because he has autism, Ian uses all sorts of clues to understand a context of a situation. If he can’t see your smile, for example, he has a very hard time knowing if you are joking or being serious. It impairs his ability to connect with the larger world, and he is shutting down.

Younger kids are also suffering because of masks. The number of kids needing speech therapy and developing reading disabilities is huge; experts think it’s related to masks. And then doing any sort of therapy on kids with speech issues is totally impossible with a barrier over the mouth of the student and the therapist. Ian would never have learned to talk at all, if he had to wear a mask during speech therapy when he was three. He would be permanently damaged.

Would all this damage be okay, if we kept people safe? Perhaps. I would say that kids should get the attention right now, but it’s a debate worth having. However, it’s not clear that these masks actually keep people safe. Dr. Fauci now says that cloth masks are basically useless. There is absolutely no way that our country will agree to medical grade masks on children at this point, so it’s cloth or nothing.

So, let’s look at the big picture. Masks are only mandated in schools. This weekend, I was in a jazz club (no masks), church (no masks), restaurants (no masks), stores (no masks). Really, schools are the ONLY place in our area that masks are mandated. Cloth masks only have marginal protection value. Meanwhile, the world is awash with the highly contagious omicron. It’s everywhere. Half of my friends and family got it last month. It’s almost impossible to avoid it. So people, including teachers and kids, are getting it at their gyms, parties, supermarkets. I sat maskless across a restaurant table from a teacher this weekend. People are bringing it into schools. But we’re all vaxxed, so most of us are bouncing back and returning to work and life with a slightly stronger immune system. More people died from suicide or opiates last week than died from COVID.

These masks just don’t seem to work well on a good day. With omicron, masks in schools feels like hygiene theater to me. But it’s hygiene theater with real, serious damage to young people and kids with disabilities. Since my family has bigger fish to fry right now, I wouldn’t go to the mat to fight for ending mask mandates, but I can’t help but tweet my skepticism, too.