Unmask the littles

It’s time to lift the burden of masks from students in Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

Kids have been saddled with this rule for far too long, to no measurable benefit.

The MSCS mask mandate has remained in place for a variety of reasons, chief among them being students’ lack of political clout. Adults have enjoyed more freedom, for some time, because we can advocate for ourselves. But young people rely on adults speaking up for them. It’s time for every responsible adult to do just that.

A mask requirement is just one of several mitigation strategies that could have been adopted, making its imposition a political rather than purely scientific choice. Lifting the mask mandate requires us to make a different political choice.

State and local authorities have recently updated their policies to allow for the end of forced masking. This month the Shelby County Health Department ceased issuing health orders, leaving the mask decision to school system leaders. MSCS is now the only district in the county that requires masks, and across the nation, mask requirements are becoming rarer by the day.

This week, Democratic governors and state legislators have joined their Republican colleagues by announcing the end of mask requirements. These mandates are expiring in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, California, Virginia, New York and Massachusetts.

The justification for the sharp turn is that “the science” changed. (It’s amazing the scientific advancements we missed while tens of thousands of us spent a week freezing without power in our homes.)

In reality, mask mandates are being lifted by these leaders for a few reasons. The most important one is that mask mandates have not delivered on the supposed benefit promoted by public health authorities.

We can see how ineffectual the mask requirement has been by taking a look at transmission rates, measuring the number of cases among MSCS students and staff against the backdrop of cases in Shelby County as a whole. The two trend lines run parallel. Starting with the first week of school, cases rise, fall, plateau, rise and fall again in tandem with the whole county. One would not expect these lines to mirror each other if a school mask mandate had any real ability to suppress viral spread.

But while national health experts of late have been increasingly willing to acknowledge the underwhelming performance of cloth masks, and have begun to call our attention to ways in which masks harm children, local medical figures have remained quiet. We should not wait for them to find the courage to speak up.

The only way to accomplish this change is through political willpower, as evidenced by the previous battle between virtual and in-person learning. If not for a bold political decision made by our state government, MSCS classes might still be virtual to this day.

The ultra-conservative approach of MSCS leadership comes with a cost. Student achievement rates, already dragging, have slid further, and our young people have lost even more ground. The ramifications of these decisions might be felt for a generation.

If forced masking continues, so will the learning barriers and isolation. Our students cannot afford to be held back any more, but we continue to gag them with strips of cloth that do little to shield anyone from a virus that, mercifully, presents a minimal threat to most young people.

But masks do impart social and emotional scars. The rates of depression, anxiety and social trauma in young people have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. Eating disorders have multiplied. The suicide attempt rate among adolescent girls has increased by half. We now have a youth mental health crisis on our hands.

Young people should not be ignored or sidelined by adult concerns. Their needs ought to come first.

Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray now has an opportunity to become a hero to some 110,500 souls. Like a scene out of the CBS reality show Survivor, the instant he says “drop your buffs,” kids are going to celebrate. It will be amazing to see their smiling faces again.

Unmask the littles.