Mask Confusion as Kids and the Coronavirus Go Back to School
Weeks before the first school bells rang, health officials sounded an alarm.
“Just in Charleston County alone, we are starting to see record numbers of children with COVID,” says Allison Eckard, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“They rival even the case numbers we saw at the height of the surge in January and February.”
Dr. Eckard says not only are more young people getting sick from the Delta variant of the coronavirus, more are becoming extremely ill. Some children have been put on ventilators. A Lancaster County teenager recently died.
“There is a clear uptick in the severity of COVID among children and our ICUs are full,” she says.
Dr. Eckard is concerned the surge could get even worse as most of the state’s 760,000 public school students head back to class this week. Children under the age of 12 still can’t get vaccinated and in South Carolina, there’s a new law.
“State law today prohibits administrators from requiring students to wear a mask,” said Governor Henry McMaster during a press conference this month addressing masks in schools.
The governor is not budging on a new budget proviso that says schools cannot use state funds to enact mask mandates. This despite CDC guidelines as well as pleas from state health officials, school leaders and lawmakers who want to reconvene.
Governor McMaster insists it’s up to parents to decide.
But the state’s two largest school districts, Charleston County and Richland County One, passed mask requirements anyway just days before the start of school. They say they must take action to protect children and keep schools open.
Anger and Confusion
There’s a lot of anger.
A crowd of parents packed a Charleston city council meeting on Daniel Island Tuesday night as members considered a mask mandate. Mothers cried they can’t take it anymore. Their kids are suffering from anxiety and depression from wearing masks and physically it’s difficult for them to breathe.
There’s also confusion.
Who will enforce these mandates? Will students in masks be turned away? What consequences do schools that defy the law really face?
The ambiguity leaves parents even more divided.
“It feels like the house is on fire and nobody’s getting out,” says James Island mother of three Jamie Meissner.
“Except, we’re watching it and it’s full of children.”
Meissner has no problem sending her kids to school in masks but wants others to do so as well. She says it’s not just for her kids but for all children. She worries about warnings from medical professionals that children are increasingly becoming critically ill.
“I cannot even imagine what that would feel like in my community if we lost a child that we could have avoided losing.”
“My child is losing her childhood,” says Mount Pleasant mother of three Jessica Zeigler.
“I have sympathy for so many people affected by this, but my number one job is to be the best mom and protect my children.”
Zeigler is not as worried about the virus as she is about the masks, and their potential impact on her children’s emotional and mental health. She believes her first grader shouldn't have to wear a mask because other parents are scared.
“I appreciate doctors who are voicing their concerns. That’s their job,” says Zeigler.
“They’re an expert on the virus, maybe, maybe they are. I am an expert for sure on parenting my child.”
Zeigler’s child is going back without at mask despite her school district’s new rule.
A Teacher’s View
Also, in Charleston County, eighth grade English teacher and Director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance Jody Stallings sets up chairs inside a Moultrie Middle School classroom.
“It’s going to look really weird to see 30 kids in a room again," he says.
Stallings is taken back by the size of the room without plexiglass and with less social distancing. He understands there is debate over the best ways to keep kids safe.
“This is part of the Democratic process, standing up and saying, ‘I don’t think this is right or I don’t think this is what we should do’,” says Stallings.
He will wear a mask and follow district rules.
“I think the worst thing would be for teachers to bring this debate into the classrooms, put kids in the middle of it, and for parents to do the same.”
Stallings says he’s focused on teaching, despite the distractions of a politicized pandemic.