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Editorial: Masks at school? The kids are fine. It’s the parents who are acting like jerks

Let Them Breathe, an anti-mask group, gathers to protest at the Redondo Beach Unified School District building in July.
Let Them Breathe, an anti-mask group, gathers to protest at the Redondo Beach Unified School District building in July.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

During a recent trip taking my 6-year-old granddaughter to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, we and other visitors needed not just reservations but also face masks. All visitors except those younger than 2. Indoors and out. No exceptions.

Everyone was obeying. They weren’t surreptitiously pulling their masks off once they were in darkened passages or feeding the lorikeets. They weren’t slipping their face coverings below their noses. As we and other families stroked the jellyfish, we smiled at each other with our eyes. Have you noticed that people have gotten much better lately at smiling with their eyes? It warms us to see it. Let’s not lose that when we can unmask for good.

No children were whining about masks despite the heat and humidity of the day. There were no complaints that they couldn’t hear or couldn’t breathe. When the rules were clear, behaving was simply a given.

When we got back to the car, I told my granddaughter she could doff the mask now. “Oh!” she said. “I forgot I was still wearing it.”

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I hear stories like this from parents all the time, including those whose kids have been in classrooms with their masks on all day. Even when they slide into the car and their parents remind them that they can take off their masks, they often shrug and leave them on. They’re used to it.

I don’t pretend that personal anecdotes are reality for everyone. And of course families choose to go to the aquarium, while school is compulsory. But kids have been going to all kinds of places where they wear masks and they’ve been managing. No one should pretend this is normal for the long term. Still, we give kids far too little credit. They’re generally adaptable and able to understand limitations well — at times, it would seem, far better than their parents.

So when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered mask-wearing inside schools this year — it’s optional outdoors — he wasn’t doing anything California kids can’t handle. Yet the response was lawsuits, because what’s a COVID-19 policy without a lawsuit these days? But these court challenges reveal more than a lack of knowledge about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. They also display a somewhat hysterical attitude, growing more prevalent among parents of privilege in many arenas, that their children are incapable of suffering any discomfort.

The lawsuits include two parent groups and, strange to say, the Orange County Board of Education, which doesn’t actually have authority over most public schools. Maybe it’s the lack of something constructive to do that has led it to embrace conservative causes lately, hosting a forum at which the main agenda seemed to be misrepresenting, then bashing, critical race theory — and then deciding to sue Newsom, challenging his authority to require masks. The state Supreme Court has already rejected that suit.

Tim Shaw, a member of the county board, said the board wasn’t suing over masks, just the governor’s powers. But a statement on the board’s website makes its position clear:

“Unfortunately, with the governor’s most recent action to force Orange County’s children, even those as young as 5 and 6 years old, to endure an academic year covering their faces for hours on end, the time to fight has come again.”

The 5- and 6-year-olds don’t know any other reality. And they’re fine with it as long as their parents and other hyper-excited adults would calm down.

It’s a familiar scenario to me. I used to volunteer at the tide pools, dispensing information about the creatures there but also trying to keep people from ripping sea stars off the rocks and going home with a bucket full of shells. I would point out how the sea anemones used bits of broken shell to protect themselves from sun and dryness, and explain to families that even though taking a single shell seemed harmless, this tide pool draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. If each person took one shell, that would decimate the tide pools.

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The kids, accustomed to the idea that the world is a crowded place with finite resources, were always fine with the restrictions. When there was a problem, it was inevitably the parents. How dare I tell them that their children couldn’t collect shells and sea stars as they had as little kids? The children would squirm with embarrassment over their parents’ unseemly public behavior.

If we worry about becoming an increasingly entitled society of people who think the rules were meant only for other people, we’re certainly getting a taste of it as parents complain about every rule that might slightly inconvenience their kids, even if for the good of all. It’s more than just masks or COVID-19; kids pick up on what their parents model. How will they have the resilience to keep climate change from decimating the planet — which demands urgent collective sacrifice — if all they see is adult entitlement and selfishness?

Think of it this way: At most schools, kids have to wear closed-toe shoes for safety. They might prefer flip-flops, feeling more comfortable with their toes wiggling in the open air, but that’s not the way it goes. Masks are just another part of the school dress code for now.

Jonathan Zachreson of Reopen California Schools, which challenged the mask order, sounded this plaintive note: “A return to a normal school year is crucial to the mental and physical health recovery for students across California who have endured months of isolation.”

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Absolutely. The last year and a half have been devastating for many California kids. They’ve missed out socially, academically and physically. They need the normalcy of returning to school . So how about if we make life as close to that as possible, let the state do its job and stop whining about little pieces of fabric?

Don’t get me wrong. I wish it were just as safe to do without the masks. Talking to my granddaughter a couple of hours after she’d met her first-grade teacher, I was trying to draw out more than monosyllabic responses.

“What kind of smile does she have?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “I couldn’t see it.”

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Ah. Of course. But she’s already getting plenty of social cues from her teacher’s gentle manner and emphasis on building social skills and confidence among children who started their formal schooling at home.

Where Reopen California Schools and other plaintiffs have it wrong is on the science. They’re sticking with the old story about how kids seem fairly impervious to the virus, unlikely to get sick and unlikely to pass it along. The American Academy of Pediatrics — an early supporter of reopening schools — is having none of that argument. Kids 2 and older should be masked, except, of course, among students with certain serious medical or developmental issues.

California was among the last states to reopen schools on a large scale, even though things were operating pretty safely elsewhere. When cases did pop up in schools, the infection had almost always come from the surrounding communities, not from spread within the classroom.

That was then, a few great months when it seemed as though we had turned the corner on COVID-19. We started out the summer luxuriating in new freedom — and then the Delta variant started clamping down on us. It doesn’t appear more deadly than the original flavor of COVID-19, but because of the higher viral load in Delta-infected people — whether they have symptoms or not — the virus is transmitted many times more easily. Children aren’t immune from serious cases, and an infection spreading more easily among them will of course mean a higher number of hospitalizations in the population, including school staff, relatives and neighbors who are particularly vulnerable.

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If we’re going to err, let’s err on the side of safeguards that maximize the chance that we can keep schools open. No one is sure what we face here. Luckily, because we have vaccines that hold down the likelihood of serious illness, we’re not in lockdown and we’re no longer emptying our takeout food into home containers. But normal — what we all want to think of as normal — continues to elude us.

There’s a lot to learn from COVID-19. We’re better informed about how scientists go about their job. We all know the word comorbidity these days, that’s for sure. We learned that “health equity,” once just a phrase to many, actually means life or death for huge numbers of people.

What we need to do next, for kids if not for ourselves, is learn to stop kvetching and fighting every little step.

Of course, life is not fair. It’s not fair that our kids won’t have a childhood quite as free and easy as they used to. But they take their cues from us. If we can take all this on the chin, their chances of emerging resilient are much higher.

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Parents: You oversaw your kids’ education at home for many difficult months. You kept your kids safe, made up games to play and tried to explain the scary to them in terms that wouldn’t make them fearful. You held yourselves and your families together. Now is not the time to lose it.


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