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COVID fight needs leadership

The State Legislature can approve a school-masking law

The State Legislature can approve a school-masking law and require teachers to be vaccinated but shows little will to do so. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

It was supposed to be a summer of festivities and freedom.

Then the delta variant of COVID-19 appeared, fueled by vaccine hesitancy, and the angst of a society in crisis returned. We are, more clearly than ever, not all in this together.

We have not all taken the same protective steps.

We face dramatically different levels of danger, depending on whether we have been vaccinated and other factors.

We disagree about the seriousness of COVID and how restrictive attempts to limit danger should be.

We disagree on the balance between personal liberty and societal responsibility around vaccinations and masking.

And we do not know for sure how easily this infection spreads in different settings, how much masking and distancing help, how easily and frequently the delta variant moves between vaccinated people, and whether delta will be the worst variant.

Schools will be opening soon and there is little consensus on what should happen there regarding masking, social distancing, and testing.

UNCERTAINTY ABOUNDS

As the mood reverts from joyous to jaundiced, frustration is exploding. The average Long Islander, in a day of work, errands, socializing and child care, could encounter a dozen different masking policies.

Do I need it in the supermarket? The library? The indoor bar? Does my kid need it, here, there, everywhere?

What if I’m vaccinated? What if she’s not? What if he’s lying? How can I work all day in a mask, or work out?

People are confused about what they should be doing.

TRENDING TOWARD TIGHTENING

As positivity rates increase and hospitalizations and deaths surge among the unvaccinated, governments, employers and businesses increasingly demand workers be vaccinated or regularly tested. That’s appropriate.

But with polls showing over 80% of those adults who are unvaccinated are either dead-set against or leaning against getting the jab, the unvaccinated are not going away. The delta variant means this uncertainty and upheaval will continue, and further mutations could be worse. The messaging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been exasperating.

The federal government will require workers to vaccinate or test. Some state and local governments will, too, as will many businesses. New York will do the same, but patient-facing health care workers must get shots without caveats. Unfortunately, Nassau and Suffolk counties have not taken the lead on mandating their workers to get the vaccine or take weekly tests.

But what about masks, for workers and customers, indoors or out, in contact with other people?

Many of the vaccinated don’t understand why they must wear masks. Many of the unvaccinated opposed mask mandates all along.

And masks do have a negative impact. Conversations lose the smiles that soften words. Wearing masks is a steady reminder that life is not normal, that we are in dark times. Yet it’s not much of a burden to wear masks, which reduce the number of breakthrough infections for those already vaccinated, as well as their ability to transmit the disease. It will also cut down on spread to immunocompromised people for whom the vaccine can fail to create antibodies, and to children under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated.

SCHOOLS ARE DIFFERENT

Children are required by law to attend school, and they learn much better when attending in person. Those under 12 can’t yet be vaccinated. Those over 12 can be, but many aren’t. Local districts won’t know which kids are vaccinated; they don’t even know which teachers are. And if districts did know, how would each teacher and bus driver and guidance counselor know which teachers and staffers to chastise for masklessness in a crowded hallway if mask requirements are not universal?

State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa told schools Thursday to follow the new CDC guidance calling for universal masking inside schools. But that’s not legally binding, and many parents are ready to fight for the right of kids to go unmasked. The schools could once again become a COVID battleground, even though educators say students had practically no issues with the masks.

One thing the novel coronavirus has taught us is that everything can change based on the latest research. The delta variant could wither in the coming months, but as things stand now:

  • Schools must require masks to operate safely.
  • Whether, when and where that requirement is lifted should be based on data, and could differ by region or county.
  • School masking policy should be determined by the state, based on the current conditions in a county or a region. Leaving such decisions to individual school boards could allow political views to trump science.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo no longer has emergency powers to override local control and order masks. The State Legislature can approve a school-masking law and require teachers to be vaccinated, but shows little will to do so. Barring that, the state Department of Health can issue guidelines that would provide schools with a rationale for decisions about mask requirements.

Elected officials, the state and counties, and school trustees need to show leadership now, before districts can be turned into partisan political battlegrounds over an issue of public health.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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