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Editorial: Social distancing and hand sanitizer aren't enough. We need masks at school

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Children, as S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman reminded us Monday, need to be in a classroom — with a teacher who can gauge understanding and tailor instruction for the whole class and provide individualized help for individual students. They need to be with other students, because a huge part of education is learning to interact with other people.

But schools and child-care centers are among this nation’s most effective germ factories, spreading whatever virus is in the air between children and hastening its spread through their families and their communities.

So with no sign that COVID-19 is running its course, no vaccine on the near horizon and no good treatments yet available, S.C. educators spent nearly two months balancing those competing realities to develop a pick-and-choose menu of best practices for school districts to consider as they prepare to start the fall semester.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say even the most modest recommendations from the AccelerateEd task force would upend everything we know about the school experience: Desks would be moved apart to space out students at least 6 feet, prepackaged breakfast and lunch served in the classroom, teachers rather than students moved from class to class, assemblies suspended, visitors prohibited, trips to the bathroom scheduled, water fountains turned off, hand sanitizer provided for kids when they get on the bus, when they get off the bus, when they enter and leave classrooms, and atriums, auditoriums, cafeterias, gyms and even outdoor spaces converted to classrooms. Assuming districts are even willing to hold in-person classes and parents are willing to send their children to those classes, many schools likely will use alternative schedules — from requiring multiple arrival and departure times, in order to reduce large gatherings before and after school, to implementing A-B schedules where half the students attend school one day and the other half the next.

Yet for all those dramatic changes, the recommendations are surprisingly, disappointingly, embarrassingly timid on one of the three key methods of virus-prevention: wearing masks.

Ms. Spearman is promoting mask wearing in increasingly dramatic terms, and she told the final meeting of AccelerateEd that the report would strongly encourage everyone to wear masks. But it doesn’t.

School districts, the recommendations say, “should review dress code and other relevant policies to ensure students and staff can wear cloth face masks and other PPE.” In other words, to make sure people will be allowed to wear masks. If they want to. The report does add that districts’ “recommendations” for masks and other personal protective equipment — not requirements, mind you, but recommendations — “should be determined by districts in accordance with the latest guidance from DHEC and/or the CDC.”

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And the current DHEC recommendations, included with the report, might be even more timid. They do say that bus drivers should be required to wear masks. Districts should “strongly encourage” teachers and staff to wear masks “as much as possible.” And students? “Consideration may be given to recommending them for students.”

You read that right. DHEC isn’t even recommending that school districts consider requiring everybody to wear masks.

We understand that masks are the latest front in the culture wars. We understand that it’s tough to force kids to do anything. We understand that even absent culture-war foolishness, there are parents — of all political persuasions, income levels and, yes, races — who tell their kids not to let teachers tell them what to do; if we could revoke those parents’ parental rights we would.

But we also understand that schools require students to follow dress codes, even though some are always going to resist, and enforcement isn’t easy. And we understand that those of us who don’t have kids in school — and that’s most of us — will be paying for the extra precautions schools take to keep kids from getting too close and to keep them bathed in hand sanitizer and to purchase personal protective equipment for teachers and possibly students who choose to use it. More importantly, we’ll be paying the price if schools return to their traditional role of community germ factories.

Most educators understand that too. And we would urge all of our school superintendents and school boards to choose the option not offered by the task force or DHEC. The one that protects all of us: requiring students and teachers to employ the third leg of the anti-virus regime, and wear face coverings.

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