Anger won’t stop spread of COVID-19 in our Kansas classrooms. Respectfully following health protocols might.

Sharon Hartin Iorio
Special to Gannett Kansas

Last spring, with COVID vaccine distributed widely, we anticipated a fall school start where children’s hugs rekindled long-separated friendships, teenagers high-fived favorite teachers and everyone could cheer the football team from the stands. It would be a return to in-person instruction and excitement for teaching and learning.

The fall, however, has erupted in an explosion of anger at school board and county commission meetings amidst rising COVID infections with spikes among children. All this has killed the expectation of a fully productive school year.

CDC guidelines require masks inside school buildings, on buses and during school activities. The Kansas State Department of Education has recommend following the CDC guidelines. In Topeka, Perry-Lecompton, Wichita and at least 10 other school districts that include about 35% of the state’s students, masks are required, in many other districts “strongly encouraged.” 

Yet, in Wichita, among scores of protesters to a county-wide mask mandate at a Sedgwick County meeting, an irate man threatened to protest outside homes of county commissioners. In the Shawnee Mission school district, two parents have sued challenging the district’s COVID protocols. The school district, upheld by a district court, is awaiting a Kansas Supreme Court hearing.

Nationally, the president of the American Federation of Teachers supports mandatory masks in schools. Eight states prohibit school districts from setting mask requirements while 14 states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools. The remaining states have left the decision to each school district.

In the battle over mask mandates, just about everyone seems to be ignoring the real problem — COVID will not ultimately disappear. As long as the virus keeps circulating, it will keep evolving and vaccines will eventually become less effective while variants, like delta, can become stronger. It’s not inconceivable that infection rates may grow so high that schools again will be closed.

School masks (if considered dress code) and school vaccine mandates (12 are required for Kansas 6-year-olds) have withstood legal challenges at the U.S. Supreme Court level. But more than a legal or political issue, the battle over safe schools is an ethical concern about how we live as Kansans.

COVID frustration and anger are understandable, but public behavior should be civil and public schools should align with the direction of public officials.

In America, each of us have the choice to wear a mask or not; yet isn’t following the advice of health and education leaders the right thing to do?

What are we teaching our children when they see us shouting disrespectfully at public meetings or disregarding requests from schools? We are role models to our children; that’s reason enough to make our behavior considerate.

There have been reports, although limited, that mask-wearing children are being bullied on the playground by the kids who don’t wear masks. This is a COVID-related safety issue teachers shouldn’t have to deal with.

It’s only fair for those who refuse for their children to wear a mask to use another form of education, such as online learning, home schooling or private schools that don’t require masks.

All of us should look at the reality of the situation and show gratitude for the ability to go back to in-person school, then focus on what we can do to fight COVID and hold our communities together.