The health and safety plan for school in the fall was the major topic of discussion at last night’s East Penn school board meeting. The district presented a draft plan that would largely return the schools to normal operation, but with masks made optional for students and staff, as well as continued increases in ventilation and disinfecting of physical spaces. Families that are uncomfortable with in-person instruction under these conditions will again have the opportunity for remote learning through the district’s VESPA program.
The plan is based on the elimination of the mask mandate in Pennsylvania, greatly reduced spread of the virus in the community, the universal availability of safe and effective vaccines for those 12 and older, and the recommendations of a newly formed health and safety review team that includes Lehigh Valley Health Network staff, including parent and pediatrician Dr. Debra Carter.
At the same time, it remains true that the CDC continues to recommend masking for all those who remain unvaccinated (including children 11 and under), there are more contagious and dangerous variants now spreading, and scientific research has confirmed that younger children who are at lower risk of covid symptoms do nonetheless transmit the virus to others (including older family members, who may be at high risk or have underlying health conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated).
These facts are a sober reminder that we shouldn’t pretend the pandemic is over. But I am nonetheless cautiously supportive of the plan. Making masks optional in the middle schools and high school– where everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated– seems like a pretty easy call to me. I think it’s a harder call for the elementary schools, where most students will likely not have access to the vaccine when school starts. In the end, though, I’m persuaded by the evidence and the experts that this is an appropriate step. If pandemic conditions change, the superintendent will retain both the authority and the responsibility to institute new measures to insure the safety of students and staff.
One issue that I would like to see given greater thought as the mask optional plan is implemented: how to insure that neither students nor staff are unfairly stigmatized for their choice on masking under this policy. We all know that there are those who have now politicized masks, transforming them from a public health tool to a symbol of identity or ideology or partisanship. As part of the discussion last night, I urged the administration to develop clear guidelines to help everyone navigate this sad reality.