About 60 Southern Lancaster County residents lined the road leading to Solanco School District’s Smith Middle School on Monday evening to protest the state requirement that students wear face masks in school except when eating and during mask breaks. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli reported, in Pennsylvania counties with substantial community transmission of COVID-19, school districts that offer in-person instruction must enforce the universal mask mandate from the state Department of Health. Lancaster County has been in the substantial category — meaning it has either 100 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a 10% or more positivity rate in the last seven days — since October 2020.
LNP | LancasterOnline photos told the story: Solanco’s basketball players, like all of the Lancaster-Lebanon League student-athletes, wore face masks during this year’s games. And still they managed to run, dribble, defend and score.
Basketball, a game of constant movement, is a physically demanding sport. And yet the masked players seemed able to meet the challenge.
In fact, one Solanco basketball player was selected by L-L League coaches to the all-defensive boys team last month and another to the all-academic team. And two Solanco girls basketball players were named to the L-L senior all-star team.
So we’re thinking that if high school basketball players can wear face masks for the duration of a 32-minute game (plus pregame warmups and halftime and postgame huddles), other students can wear masks while sitting in class. And be able to breathe just fine while doing so.
Surgeons wear face masks during grueling and lengthy surgeries. Nurses wear face masks and other protective gear during long, physically demanding shifts tending to COVID-19 patients. Some of them have asthma and still manage to take in enough oxygen — because, as a recent study reported by Medscape Medical News showed, wearing “a mask to protect against transmission of COVID-19 does not decrease oxygen saturation,” even in people with asthma.
So the sign reading “Let them breathe” at the anti-mask protest in the Southern End didn’t make much sense. Other signs referred to masks, ridiculously, as “muzzles.”
And the use of “choice” — as on the signs “My Kids My Choice” and “Parents Choice” — was puzzling, not least because no one is depriving parents of the choice of home-schooling their kids if they don’t want them to be masked in school.
Solanco parent Kristin Gorgo, of Kirkwood, who organized Monday’s “UnMask Solanco” protest, said giving students “the choice of going to school masked or going to school online is not a choice.”
But it is.
Moreover, we’re certain there are plenty of Solanco students who accept mask-wearing as part of pandemic life. And not because, as Peach Bottom resident Carlos Martinez suggested, they’ve been conditioned by their teachers and school officials “to be compliant.”
But because they’re smart. And while the chances of them becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 are relatively low, the chances aren’t zero.
Perhaps they don’t want to transmit the novel coronavirus to others. (As a Harvard Medical School website notes, recent studies indicated that “infected children had as much, or more, coronavirus in their upper respiratory tracts as infected adults.” This raises the concern that even children without COVID-19 symptoms “could readily spread the infection to others.”)
Or maybe the students are still too young to think about such things, but are unbothered by their “Frozen” masks or “Star Wars” masks and are just happy to be attending school with their classmates.
School administrators have had to navigate tricky terrain throughout this pandemic. Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss, contacted by LNP | LancasterOnline’s Geli before the protest, said he sympathized with those who don’t like the mask requirement, but in order to stick with in-person instruction, masks must be worn.
“We will be watching the regulations as they likely change and modify,” Bliss said, “and, truthfully, I’m pretty optimistic about those potential changes, but they aren’t here yet.”
On that score, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday that COVID-19 mitigation measures in Pennsylvania will be lifted Memorial Day — except for the public mask mandate.
Until more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, masks are an effective weapon in limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Wolf says the mask mandate will stay in place until 70% of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated. (Wolf said Tuesday in a tweet that 50.6% of Pennsylvanians had received at least one dose.)
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that his administration’s new goal is to have 70% of Americans at least partially vaccinated by the Fourth of July and 160 million Americans fully vaccinated.
This may not be enough to attain herd immunity — The New York Times reported Monday that “experts now calculate the herd immunity threshold to be at least” 80% — but it gets us close.
The power lies in our hands.
If you dislike wearing masks in public spaces, get vaccinated and encourage people you know to get vaccinated, too. That — far more effectively than a protest outside of a school — will move us closer to the day when we will be able to go unmasked in public.
Martinez said he was at the Solanco protest “to take these damn masks off these kids.” He said his kids have been “miserable” in school since the pandemic started.
This has been a difficult year for all of us, and we feel particular compassion for kids, who have dealt with disrupted routines, schooling and friendships. But those “damn masks” have helped schools to move past the disruptions. And few things are more miserable than being ill with a virus whose long-term effects remain unclear.
COVID-19 is a capricious and vicious infection that spares some people but sickens others, children included. When we were told that a piece of cloth would protect us and our kids in a pandemic, we were grateful. Mask-wearing seemed to us to be a painless and inexpensive protective measure.
More than 578,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths later, we still don’t really understand what the anti-mask fuss is about. And we’d guess that a sizable number of Solanco students don’t either.
If it’s true, as the protesters suggested, that some teachers are quietly saying they agree with the efforts of UnMask Solanco, we’d suggest those teachers brush up on science. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website would be an excellent place to start.
By contrast, commenters on the Facebook page of UnMask Solanco organizer Kristin Gorgo inveigh against “tyranny,” “godless indoctrination” and — clearly influenced by Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ chief purveyor of misinformation and lies — “child abuse and control.”
The school mask mandate is none of those things. It’s a simple, but effective, means of keeping children and teachers healthy in a pandemic that continues to sicken people in our county. Mask-wearing should not be a political issue. It's not difficult. Really, it isn't.