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Feature 03.15.2022 5 minutes

Parents Must Say No to COVID Fear

Rear view of school girl throwing away protective mask

To keep the masks off at schools, sane adults must seek strength in numbers.

The other day I sent my son, unmasked, to his karate class. This was totally allowed (the YMCA in our neighborhood has lifted its mask mandate), but he was the only kid in the class without a mask. I stood there, and I watched him, and I wondered what would happen next. Kids across the country are being bullied for doing what I had him do. To some, his beautiful little unmasked face is a shot across the bow. Here in New York City, there are those who think kids should remain masked indefinitely.

On February 25, the CDC changed its guidelines around masking and other COVID restrictions. Instead of blanket statements—about the importance of mask wearing and social distancing—the guidelines are now locality-specific and take into account “hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area.” Currently, this means that, according to the CDC, the vast majority of the country has no need of an indoor mask mandate. New York City, where I live and am raising my two sons, falls into that category.

Two days later, citing the new guidelines, New York Governor Kathy Hochul ended the statewide mask mandate, including the school mask mandate, which had been in place without interruption since in-person schooling resumed in September 2020. Following Hochul’s announcement, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that the city’s school mask mandate would end on March 7, as long as there are “no unforeseen spikes and our numbers continue to show a low level of risk.”

On the one hand, Hooray! It’s high time for those masks to come off our kids. On the other hand, What the heck? Nothing about the science has changed. The things we’ve known for months now—children’s next-to-zero risk of severe illness from COVID, the inefficacy of cloth masks, the fact that schools have never been super-spreaders—were just as true at the beginning of this school year as they are now. Data on all these things was widely available, often directly from the CDC. And studies about the harms of mask wearing for children had begun to circulate as well. But the masks stayed on at school—and at after school, and sports practices, and pretty much anywhere children gathered in groups. Since the CDC’s February 25 announcement, everything is exactly the same except the guidelines—which are now drastically different.

Before the CDC’s about-face, the notion that one might want school masking to come to an end was all but taboo. As I stood around at sub-zero birthday parties in the park, mildly mentioning that perhaps this was no longer necessary, I received blank stares and raised eyebrows from many of my fellow parents. In the outdoor pick-up line at school, I’d smile warmly at parents in KN-95s before hugging my seven-year-old and ripping the wet, crumb-dusted mask off his face and heading home. All this mere days before the CDC’s announcement.

This delusion—and that is what it is—that masks are the only thing standing between our children and certain death, is easy to trace to its origins. Back in 2020, as COVID swept across the globe, filling up hospitals and killing off the elderly, our lives became something like the first act of a zombie movie. In my neighborhood, police cars cruised through the nearly-empty park, blaring messages about “social distancing” and “staying safe.” Across the country and the world, travel was restricted, lockdowns were imposed, and schools went fully remote. Health “experts” told us that gathering with our extended family could be “catastrophic.” And masks became “one of the most powerful weapons” we had against COVID-19.

Along the way, it all got political: Trump’s blasé attitude toward the virus and his disdain for masks and mandates caused those who abhorred him to cling to pandemic precautions as an indicator of their own virtue. Fear—of the pandemic, of spreading the virus, of killing off family members—became good. The “good guys” followed the guidance of the experts at the CDC (even if the guidance and the CDC’s own science didn’t match up). The “bad guys” did not. What’s a little speech delaysocial impairment, or depression compared to literal extinction? The message was clear: it was the masks or death.

A regular, rule-following parent, going about his or her daily life, not consciously aware of the politics involved, taking cues from the sorts of theoretically apolitical sources designed to keep us safe, would be forgiven for thinking that the situation for kids was still fairly dire. Only a conscious shift away from the status quo would allow you to break free of the delusion.

The New Rebellion

As it happens, I am no stranger to delusion. I have an anxiety disorder which makes me think that horrible things with a ridiculously low chance of ever happening are just as likely to happen as normal things. (My husband said he’d be home at 6:30 and it’s 6:35? He must be dead. How will I raise the children without him?)

Back in December 2020, I believed with great certainty that my son was going to die of COVID. He’d been exposed at school and I was a week away from giving birth to his brother. I became convinced that I was going to be in one hospital room in Manhattan delivering a baby while he was in another hospital room in Brooklyn gasping out his last breaths without me. So I get it.

But, as I say, I have an anxiety disorder. (Key words: “anxiety” and “disorder.”) Usually, my extreme fears are limited just to myself—that’s part of how I know they’re extreme. But during the pandemic, I suddenly saw this same kind of worst-case-scenario thinking in nearly all my fellow parents. They had essentially been traumatized into continued support for school mask mandates.

It’s important for someone like me—who feels the insidious allure of fear on the regular—to have the cold, hard facts. Comparing the facts to the narrative is a textbook cognitive behavioral therapy technique. It’s a strategy I use all the time. And it’s the thing that has allowed me to find my way to the truth when it comes to COVID. The narrative that masks are the only thing standing between our children and death does not match up with the facts.

People who veered off message—making their own decisions based on the available data—call themselves Team Reality. Like a sane man trapped in an insane asylum, we continue to assert our sanity in the face of mandates and social pressures that insist the truth is something other than what it really is.

The CDC’s guidance change—and the subsequent changes it caused here in New York schools—had nothing to do with shifting science. In fact, I believe it had nearly everything to do with shifting narrative. For months now, angry moms have been holding rallies, publishing articlescontacting their representatives, and questioning their schools’ draconian COVID measures. They did this in the face of intense social backlashpublic shaming, and fears their children would be bullied for the stance they were taking. They abandoned their political parties, their social groups, the bubbles they thought they belonged in. They weren’t the only ones who believed what they believed. They were just the only ones willing to say it out loud. They stood up for their children when no one else would, determined to let lawmakers know that Team Fear was not the only team around.

Those courageous moms on the front lines got us where we are now. It’s time we pick up the slack. The CDC’s new guidelines leave room for a return to school masking. In areas where the threat of COVID is “high,” the guidance suggests mask mandates be put back in place. Even for children, who, the CDC acknowledges, are always at very low risk.

And Team Fear is already out there, spinning the narrative, trying to make us believe the delusion. Teachersparents, and members of the general public are lamenting the end of school masking, making it clear that masks are there for our children’s “protection,” and should not be removed. Here in New York City, there’s a push to keep the masks on children four and under because there is no vaccine available for them yet. (Regardless of the fact that unvaccinated children over five will still be allowed to unmask on Monday.) It’s time to change the narrative so completely that, when politicians weigh the pros and cons of reinstituting these mandates, the vast majority of their constituency speak up and say, “no way.”

About a month ago, I started a group called Parents in Person. It’s a community of parents here in New York City who believe that children’s lives should go back to normal. The hope is that we can create a bubble for our children in which they can have unmasked playdates, hang with friends at indoor playgrounds, and put down the burden they never asked to bear. That they can just be kids. Because—regardless of what Team Fear would like them to think—there is no earthly reason why they shouldn’t. This, I believe, is the new rebellion.

The new rebellion is quiet. It’s calm. It happens at birthday parties and moms’ nights out, in the school pick-up line and at play dates. It’s one mom turning to another and saying, “I’m so glad they lifted the school mask mandate!” Calmly, like it’s the sanest thing in the world. Like, why wouldn’t you be glad?

By the end of the karate class the other day, nearly all the other children had taken off their masks. Their parents hadn’t known it was allowed. It’s not that Team Fear is the majority, it’s that they’ve had the microphone. And because they’ve had the microphone, parents have been afraid to speak up. And because they don’t speak up, politicians believe school mask mandates will be welcomed by their constituency any time COVID numbers begin to spike.

So we have to speak up. We have to make the narrative fit the facts. It’s the only way to break free of the delusion. The only way to make sure these mandates are gone for good. Fear isn’t serving us. It very rarely does.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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