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Our View: Yes, masks

Our new Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser already has waded into deep waters with some significant and contentious issues to sort out, including the sale of the 9-R Administration Building and the location of the new Miller Middle School.

The district intends to send students back into the classroom when school starts Aug. 24. Whether students must wear masks is another decision on the table. This week, the district held a community meeting at which about 100 attendees split on whether masks should be required or not, according to The Durango Herald’s news story.

It’s safe to say that everyone wants everything to just go back to normal. And we’ve all heard that data show children are less likely to be infected with COVID-19, less likely to get seriously ill if they are infected and far less likely to be hospitalized or die than are infected adults.

But because children younger than 12 still can’t get vaccinated – and because some parents do not want their older children to be vaccinated – we’ll be mixing vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools this fall. Children often show mild or no symptoms if they are infected, which means it would be impossible to determine with certainty who might be carrying COVID-19 into the classroom.

And we must not forget that adult teachers and staff members are at greater risk than students if they contract the virus. It’s all well and good if parents feel their children are in no danger when going mask-free, but if staff members and teachers fall sick from the delta variant, they are at greater risk of getting severely sick and being more contagious than with the earlier versions of the virus. If teachers and staff members become sick, then school can’t happen.

If kids aren’t wearing masks, will some teachers and staff members be forced to quit, especially those who may have respiratory illnesses like asthma, diabetes or immune disorders that make them vulnerable to the disease? If kids aren’t wearing masks, will teachers and staff members still have the option to wear them? If not, then the school district will be culpable (though likely not legally liable) for any who fall ill and – under the worst circumstances – die.

And if teachers and staff members can’t meet their obligations, and schools have to go to remote learning again, then we’re back to square one, in which parents have to leave jobs in order to care for young children at home, an issue that harms minority populations and single mothers most and damages the economy as a whole.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are advocating that students ages 2 and older wear masks in school. Data show that wearing masks reduces the incidence of COVID-19 by 20%.

The AAP notes on its website that studies show children older than 10 may spread COVID-19 as efficiently as adults.

Considering all of these variables, it’s tempting to say, “Forget the masks, let’s just see what happens.” But what then will we say to the parents of the child – or the family of a teacher or staff member – who gets severely sick and dies, as slim as that possibility may be? What risk is acceptable? One dead child? A dead teacher, librarian, counselor, cafeteria worker, janitor?

Wearing masks will not prevent children from learning, nor will it make them crazy or cause long-term mental health damage. Drill down into any of the claims about mask dangers for children and you come up with ... nothing. Wearing a mask is not dangerous. Uncomfortable, maybe. Do they interfere somewhat with normal communication patterns? Probably. Are they bearable? Yes.

The sooner everyone eligible gets vaccinated, including children 12 and older, the sooner we can get this virus under control and go back to life as we know it. In the meantime, continuing safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing and hand-washing – in schools and all public indoor settings – continues to make the best sense.