OPINION: Ending Indoor K-12 Mask Mandate Puts Vulnerable Community Members at Risk

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The following opinion piece is from Parents for an Ethical and Science-Based Return to Schools, a group of several hundred South Orange-Maplewood parents who connect via a local private Facebook group. The piece was sent to Village Green in response to an opinion piece/press release from the Parents for a Safe Return to School and was adjusted March 10 after the South Orange-Maplewood School District announced an end to the K-12 mask mandate effective March 14.

All of us in Maplewood and South Orange want to return to the “normalcy” of the pre-COVID world. Unfortunately, that version of “normal” no longer exists. COVID-19 is with us — it mutates every day. COVID-19 has killed over 900,000 Americans since early 2020, including 120,000 since the beginning of 2022, and has disproportionately killed and disabled Black and brown Americans. Closer to home, it has killed 8 of our neighbors in the first 6 weeks of this year.  Several children in our district have gone through the trauma of losing a parent to the disease. As one group of medical and public health experts puts it: “Normal should not mean accepting perpetually high rates of COVID-related illness, chronic disability, and death”. 

On March 10, an e-mail was sent to parents, staff, and students in the SOMSD that our district would be moving to “mask optional”. We represent the parents and caregivers who did not want to remove any lifesaving COVID-mitigation protocols.

We also represent the many people for whom a return to normal is not currently possible, including:

  • Infants and children under 5 who are ineligible for any COVID-19 vaccine (many of whom have siblings in the SOMSD)
  • Immuno-compromised children, adults, and teachers (including common conditions such as type 1 diabetes, heart conditions, etc.)
  • Special needs children 
  • People who are at higher risk of death and long-term illness from COVID, including pregnant people
  • People who cannot take vaccines

Many of our neighbors, friends, and loved ones fall into this above group. 

The advocates for mask optional policies have recently relied on hasty, cherry-picked data that makes us all less safe. While vaccines are one good measure that help fight the transmission of COVID-19, we know that their efficacy wanes over time and they do not completely prevent infection or transmission. 

Unfortunately, Superintendent Taylor decided, based on an incredibly flawed survey that was sent to staff, students and parents of the SOMSD, that the public has spoken, and our district will be mask optional. The survey itself was a virtual- and English-only survey that was poorly constructed. In this survey parents and an overwhelming majority of students and staff, the latter two being the people who actually have to be in the buildings, said that masks should remain mandatory “in spaces that hold large indoor gatherings”, with “large indoor gatherings” never being defined.

By deciding to go mask optional, even though masks are the most effective tools we have against unchecked transmission, our neighbors and Superintendent have decided to put teachers, other neighbors and their children at unnecessary risk. Since SOMSD is forcing children and staff to be in a situation of increased risk, the least they can do is provide any child and staff member with N95 or KN94 masks, which are the only masks proven to be effective at protecting the wearer.  

The SOMSD is currently going against the CDC’s most recent guidance, specifically regarding masking following a COVID-19 exposure. In the letter sent out by the SOMSD, they will continue to require/request masking “for individuals who are returning to school after COVID-positive isolation on days 6-10.” Nowhere do they mention someone with a COVID-19 exposure, while the CDC states, “regardless of your COVID-19 community level, you should mask if you have: symptoms of COVID-19, positive COVID-19 test, exposure to someone with COVID-19.”

We can all agree that kids need to be in school.  Removing mandatory masks — a key tool that has prevented large outbreaks and kept our schools open — now opens the door to the possibility of more outbreaks and school closures, which we have collectively worked so hard to avoid these past two years.  If the goal is for children to be in school, mandatory indoor masking for all is the most effective way to keep our schools open safely.  

We believe that a diverse community is the best and healthiest kind. We mask and get vaccinated not only to protect ourselves, but to protect our neighbors who may not have the same health, social, or financial safety nets that some of the more privileged members of our community do. While many neighboring districts (Millburn and Livingston, for example) have decided to go mask optional, it should not be ignored that many other neighboring districts (Newark, East Orange, and Irvington, for example) are maintaining their mask mandates. 

Finally, we would like to address misinformation that was spread by a local group, SOMA FOR SAFE RETURN TO SCHOOL in a recent press release, as well as provide science-based facts about masking that may help inform parents, students and staff regarding their decision to mask or not to mask.

Facts vs. Fiction: Research-based information in response to our local anti-mask advocates’ recent press release: 

Fiction: Wearing masks cause mental health and developmental issues among kids 

Fact: There is no data showing a negative impact for mask-wearing. In fact, one study even showed that children learn words better with opaque masks than clear ones. There is, however, plenty of data showing COVID-19’s impact on our nation’s collective mental health, especially among kids. We should all be advocating additional support for our kids to navigate the impact of this pandemic. 

Fiction: “One-way masking has proven effective and is an option for families who feel more comfortable doing so.”

Fact: One-way masking has only been demonstrated to be effective when using N95 or KN94 masks. While these masks are the most effective, they also happen to be the most scarce and most expensive, putting lower-income families in a financial bind.

Fiction: Many kids ages 5-18 are vaccinated. That’s all the protection they need. 

Fact: Recent research shows significantly reduced efficacy of vaccines for kids ages 5-12, due to the omicron variant that very recently caused a surge in cases and deaths. While the vaccine still proved quite effective against severe disease and hospitalization, it did not stop symptomatic infection, which means these children were still able to spread COVID-19 to others.

Fiction: “Families who see the health benefits in letting their students learn mask free will also be allowed that choice.” 

Fact: There are no established health benefits in letting students learn mask-free. Masks have not been shown to affect physical or mental health

Fiction: “With COVID restrictions lessening in New Jersey and every other state, there’s no extra risk associated with time spent outside the tri-state region versus staying within our state, or even towns.” 

Fact: This is patently and demonstrably false. You cannot simultaneously argue that we should lift COVID restrictions in SOMA schools because of our community’s high vaccination rate while also thinking that there is “no extra risk associated with time spent outside” of that community, especially if traveling to an area of high risk that has also lifted mask mandates, against the CDC’s most recent guidance. A “realistic alternative to quarantine” would be masking. 

Fiction: “A negative PCR test prior to return to school after travel would be a much more realistic alternative to quarantine in an effort to keep children where they are best served: in school.”

Fact: This is a bad recommendation. Let’s talk about PCR tests. The PCR test is going to give you a result for the day you took it. We know that COVID-19 has an incubation period of 2-14 days. Taking a PCR test the day you get back from a trip can only tell you whether you have COVID at that time. PCR tests don’t look forward. Again, masking would be the best mitigation here. 

Fiction: Kids with COVID exposure should only have to test to stay.

Fact:  Per the CDC’s most recent guidance, “Regardless of your COVID-19 community level, you should mask if you have: symptoms of COVID-19, positive COVID-19 test, exposure to someone with COVID-19.” In addition, rapid tests are inaccurate for asymptomatic individuals, especially children.

Aspiration: We don’t want any of our district’s policies to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated students. 

Fact: You simply cannot make an argument to listen to the CDC, NJ DOH, and American Academy of Pediatrics in one breath, and then seek a loophole like this in the next. All of these organizations (CDC, NJ DOH, and AAP) recommend the vaccine in individuals who are 5 and up and make clear that the single best thing people can do to curb COVID is to get vaccinated, and that message is stamped across nearly every page of guidance they provide.

We are a strong and diverse community of friends and neighbors. We hope that everyone will consider the lives of others who want to go to school, learn, and safely be with friends and family during this pandemic. Please consider what might be happening beyond your own homes and continue to use masks to protect the vulnerable people in our towns.

Parents for an Ethical and Science-Based Return to Schools

Parents for an Ethical and Science-Based Return to Schools is a group of several hundred concerned parents, community members, and teachers who hope that we choose policies and measures that demonstrate care and protect marginalized, vulnerable, and disabled people, and people most at-risk from the long-term impact of COVID-19. 


Stacey Saenz de Viteri, Ph.D.,  Natalie Peretti, Laina Stapleton, Katie Fraidstern

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