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Wearing a mask is the right thing for all students when school begins this fall

Until our country can reach herd immunity, we need to do everything we can to protect the unvaccinated, which includes children under 12. 

A preschool student washes her hands before breakfast at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side,
A preschool student wears a mask and washes her hands at Dawes Elementary School on the Southwest Side, A former Chicago teacher says wearing masks is the right thing to do when school begins.
Ashlee Garcia/Sun-Times

The end of July to educators means one thing: the school year is right around the corner. Every summer since I became a teacher, I used a portion of my summer to plan curriculum for the school year, and nearly every year I tried to make my lesson plans perfect.

There was one major problem, though. Summer meant idealism — I had the ideal students for my plans with the ideal school year. Sure, all of my students would love The Metamorphosis and completely understand when to use a semicolon.

Summer also meant forgetfulness — I often forgot the pacing necessary for students to complete a unit of study as I planned a unit for four weeks, and we would really need six or eight to complete it.

This summer, for many educators, parents, and students across the country, planning, idealism, and forgetfulness are all coming into play in the current hot-button debate: Will students wear masks in school or not?

As a high school librarian and a parent of two children in elementary school, the debate has recently entered my household via both my children, at breakfast. “Mama?” they asked. “We’re going back full day, right? But will we have to wear masks?”

“I don’t know yet,” I replied.

My superintendent at Leyden High School District in Franklin Park, a suburb just outside of Chicago, sent all of us staff a survey asking whether or not we thought students and teachers should wear masks when school begins in August. Like many districts across the country, my district, and my children’s district, are in the decision-making process.

It’s a difficult decision due to many varying factors: murky local and national guidance, an increase in COVID-19 from the Delta variant in some areas, a less-than-optimal vaccination rate in adults, and no available vaccine yet for children under 12. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that all unvaccinated K-12 students wear masks, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that all K-12 students wear masks regardless of vaccination status, because tracking who is vaccinated and who is not, plus enforcing a mask mandate only for some students, will cause difficulties for schools.

Schools are germy places

As a parent of two unvaccinated children, I believe my children and all others in elementary schools should wear masks.

It’s true that COVID-19 has not had the same extreme impact on children as it has had on adults. But in July, COVID-19 cases in children are double what they were in June. It is also too soon to tell how variants will impact children. Most American adults are not fully vaccinated, and who knows what other variants may emerge and impact our children?

As a high school educator, I also think that students and teachers should wear masks. What we may have forgotten over the summer is the major problem of cleanliness in our public schools.

During my 15 years as a Chicago Public Schools teacher, I witnessed firsthand the difficulties of keeping a school clean as the district cut custodians and eventually privatized them. In one school, a student vomited in the doorway of my library, and it took over six hours for someone to come and clean it up. In another school, students would not go to the bathroom all day because the facilities were so disgusting.

Even at the high school where I now work, and with an adequate number of engineers and custodians, disinfecting and cleaning every touchable surface on a daily basis is impossible.

Let’s face it: schools are germy places. Even at their cleanest, elementary classrooms often have close to 30 students for hours a day. In high schools, where students switch classes, close to 200 students may use a single classroom over the course of a day. And hallways will be crammed full again, as will common areas like cafeterias and libraries.

We have come a long way during the pandemic. Many schools that were hybrid in the spring are now planning full-time in-person instruction in the fall. Starting the school year off in masks is the right move. Most K-12 students, and even eligible adults, are not vaccinated.

Until our country can reach herd immunity and prioritize vaccination, we need to do everything we can to protect the unvaccinated. And right now, unfortunately, that means starting off the school year in a mask.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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