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Sara Lassig: Stewartville schools' mask stance is ill-advised

The values of “choice” and popularity were placed above the values of empathy, community, and the well-being of our most vulnerable members.

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Sara Lassig
Contributed
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As a parent of children in the Stewartville School District, a health care professional who has supported families through the death of loved ones from COVID-19, and a community member, I was stunned and disappointed by the actions of the Stewartville School Board on Jan. 10 .

Across the country, state, and nearby localities, public and private entities are tightening up COVID protocols and mitigation measures in light of the current surge. Our medical facilities and public health entities are pleading for help, cooperation, and the following of science and data.

Mayo Clinic tightened policies and mitigation methods, and Rochester is postponing events based on input from the Olmsted County Department of Health. In Stewartville, the school board voted to proceed with a plan to stop universal masking on Jan. 24.

Rochester Public Schools had to pivot to distance learning due to staffing concerns. Stewartville’s superintendent was clear that Stewartville is dealing with a staffing crisis. If 15% (or even 10%) of a grade level has COVID (when masking would start, per the plan), we are in a significant crisis far beyond what the planned mitigation recommendations would be.

We don’t wait until houses are fully engulfed to send the fire department. Instead, we ensure that homes have sprinklers and smoke detectors. A “fire” could still occur but it is more likely to be caught earlier and better contained.

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In Stewartville and elsewhere, the role of school board members is not to offer conjecture and personal opinions on matters in which they do not have education or a professional background. When professional organizations and public health entities are recommending continued masking, local school boards and leadership need to consider the liability they are inviting.

If 75% of children stop wearing masks, that 100% impacts the health and safety of the staff and students who continue masking, as the dual protective factor is gone. Similar to smoking bans, which may be perceived as infringing upon the “rights” of some, others unmasking, just like others smoking nearby, has a significant impact on those who continue to mask.

There are many parents who don’t have their children in sports or organized activities right now due to prioritizing risks they are willing to take, and thus the only exposure the children have is at school. To maintain this one safer vital activity is imperative to these families.

In Stewartville, a kindergartner is battling leukemia, and the community has rallied in showing amazing support to him and his family. (His parents reviewed and approved this column in advance.) When it comes to his safety and that of other students who are very vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, we need these continued displays of support and compassion.

Every community has high-risk students and ongoing masking through this surge is an excellent way for school leaders, classmates, families, and communities to show care and compassion. As was said by Mahatma Gandhi, “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

The values of “choice” and popularity were placed above the values of empathy, community, and the well-being of our most vulnerable members. Young people also have older, higher-risk family members. Our school leaders and communities can do better than this.

Nearly everyone seems to agree that we want our students in school and we do not want to pivot to distance learning. The fact is that vaccination, universal masking and quarantines are the top mitigation measures to make this happen. Now is the time to take action based on facts and science, not opinions.

Sara Lassig, LICSW, PhD, is Stewartville resident, mom of two young children and a caregiver to a parent with dementia. She has been a medical social worker in palliative care for nearly 15 years and has training and experience in health care ethics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author in her personal capacity and they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of any other organization.

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