GARDEN SPOT 7.jpg

In this photo from Aug. 31, 2020, Garden Spot High School and middle school students in the Eastern Lancaster County School District return for their first day of school.

THE ISSUE

“Despite the outrage many parents have displayed at school board meetings across Lancaster County since the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced its school mask order at the end of August, the number of approved mask exceptions is relatively low at local school districts. Except at least one,” journalist Alex Geli reported in the “Lancaster Watchdog” column in this week’s Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline. “At 11 of the 12 county school districts that provided data to LNP | LancasterOnline this week, 7% or less of the student body requested a mask exception. Meanwhile, seven of the eight school districts that shared specific data regarding exception approvals reported 2% or less of their student population were approved for mask exceptions. In both cases, Eastern Lancaster County School District was the exception. Data was unavailable for Donegal, Lancaster, Lampeter-Strasburg, Manheim Central and Octorara Area school districts.”

In school, students are taught about cause and effect, so they can learn to identify why things happen.

What follows is an example of cause and effect.

Eastern Lancaster County School District — Elanco — is the only school district in Lancaster County that allows parents to obtain a mask exception for their kids without providing a doctor’s note. This runs counter to the state’s school masking order, which requires medical documentation for an exception request. 

This permissive policy, which basically rubber-stamps mask exception requests, is the cause.

And the effect? As Geli reported, 1,391 of 2,823 Elanco students — nearly 50% of the entire student body — are allowed to attend school without masks.

There may be another effect, which is difficult to prove without more investigation, so let’s call it a hypothesis. We’re hypothesizing that this lax mask policy has contributed to the fact that, as Geli reported, “Elanco has also been the leader in COVID-19 cases throughout the 2021-22 school year.”

“Since the first week of school, when it reported five cases, Elanco has reported 31, 56, 81, 55 and 38 active cases per week, respectively, since then,” Geli noted.

“The masking is probably part of that,” Superintendent Bob Hollister said of the high COVID-19 case numbers. He pointed to Elanco’s low vaccination rate as another contributing factor.

That seems like a logical conclusion. When people fail to mask up and fail to get vaccinated against COVID-19, they’re practically issuing an invitation to the novel coronavirus to infect them.

The 17 district students who co-signed a letter in September imploring the Elanco school board to heed the state Department of Health’s school masking order clearly absorbed the lessons they have been taught about cause and effect. They warned of another potential effect of failing to heed the state order: “We now have irrefutable evidence, as a nation and as a community, that school is the best place for young people to be during the day,” Garden Spot High School senior William Fithian, the author of that letter, wrote. “... We must do everything in our power to keep our schools open; we must give young people every opportunity to thrive in their classrooms and extracurricular activities. But in order to do so, we must abide by best practices for our community’s health; we must mask up!”

A couple of days after the students’ letter was published in the Sept. 26 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline, Elanco announced that its secondary campus, which includes Garden Spot High School, needed to close for several days because too many parents were sending sick children to school and COVID-19 cases had surged as a result, worsening staff and school bus driver shortages.

Cause and effect.

What is not an example of cause and effect, but much more likely is owed to the power of parental suggestion? A child who says he or she cannot breathe because of a mask. Masks do not impede breathing.

As we’ve noted before, doctors who treat asthma and other lung diseases actually advise their patients to wear face masks to protect against COVID-19. Research presented at this year’s convention of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that wearing a mask, “which helps to slow the spread of COVID-19, does not impact the oxygen saturation of the wearer, regardless of if the individual has asthma or not,” according to the academy’s website.

This is why physicians, when asked to approve of mask exceptions because parents claim their kids cannot breathe in masks, are more likely to check for any underlying health issues, Drs. Heidi Kistler and Kirsten Johnsen Martin told Geli.

The two Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health physicians told Geli that they may suggest face shields for some children. But if a child is really struggling with a physical or mental health condition, the wiser course is to treat that condition rather than to eliminate protective face masks. “If someone feels like they can’t breathe … there’s probably more we should be doing to treat their asthma,” Kistler said.

Both doctors told Geli that it is the policy of their offices to only approve of a mask exception for a school-age child in extreme cases in which the child physically cannot safely put on or remove a mask.

The reason for this seems crystal-clear: Because the doctors know all too well the devastating cause and effect of COVID-19 infection, even in children. Because until children under age 12 can be immunized against COVID-19 — hopefully by Thanksgiving — masks are a simple and effective tool to guard against the highly transmissible delta variant.

In the “Lancaster Watchdog” column, Geli noted that in the Penn Manor School District, “which has about 5,400 students, 500 students initially requested a mask exception, but a significant number dropped off after the district’s grace period ended — in other words, when the deadline came for providing a doctor's note.” 

Why did all those supposedly genuinely needed mask exceptions evaporate?

It is not because, as one Pequea Valley school board member quoted by Geli asserted, physicians are afraid to sign off on mask exceptions. Doctors such as Kistler and Johnsen Martin are not afraid. They are taking care to keep children healthy. They are relying on their medical training — rather than politics, politicians and vocal anti-science protesters —  to guide their decision-making, because they deal with matters of life and death.

Physicians are holding the line against frivolous mask exception requests, and thank goodness they are. If only the same line of defense was in place to protect Elanco students.

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