The Yankton School Board made the proper call last week when it decided to mandate the wearing of face masks at school when the fall semester begins in about three weeks.

According to the decision, masks will be required of students and staff, except when social distancing is possible.

The decision aligns not only the majority of comments received by the board at two public meetings in recent weeks, but also with the results of a survey of teachers which found 75% of them supported the wearing of masks.

Face masks, while not providing a 100% guarantee of protection, can help cut down on the spread of the coronavirus; it offers more protection for others than for the wearer, although some recent studies suggest the defensive value for the wearers may be greater than first believed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that masks should be worn when possible, stating, “There is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.”

Critics of masks point to some studies that question the value of masks, as school board member Frani Kiefer pointed out last week.

“I went and pulled up actual trials and read those in,” she said. “Everything is comparing N95 to surgical masks or surgical masks to cloth masks,” she said. “There’s no concrete data out there that I can find that says (not wearing) masks is better than (wearing) masks.”

The mask mandate is important because this state is about to open its schools and thus create gathering points that will have to be monitored carefully. Masks are just one tool in this fight, but they can offer some value.

The school board’s decision was not easily arrived at, nor will it likely be easily implemented.

For instance, the youngest students may struggle with the responsibility of wearing masks (not to mention social distancing). This will require some behavioral adjustments on their part.

There is also the question of enforcement. Will teachers and administrators be reduced to acting as “mask police” to make the mandate work?

Meanwhile, there are also the signals being received from Pierre.

On the same day the Yankton School Board made its decision, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem dismissed the idea of requiring students to wear masks in classrooms. She pointed to “very mixed research and the science has not proven what’s effective and what isn’t” — despite what the CDC has found.

On Friday, several media outlets reported that the Noem campaign (which does function even though she is not running this election cycle) sent out a fundraising email lauding the fact that Noem “is encouraging families to send their children back to school — without masks.” (The last two works were italicized in the email to add either emphasis or defiance, possibly both.) The email also noted that, because kids constantly “fidget with masks, touch their faces, drop masks on the floor and put them back on — and possibly even trade with each other, (w)e believe that when it comes to children, masks have the potential to do more harm than good.”

However, a subsequent email from Noem’s office Friday night said the governor is opposed only to mask mandates, and if “people want to wear masks, that’s absolutely their prerogative — she has never discouraged wearing them.” But she is “encouraging schools to allow each family and child to make their own decisions about masking.”  

Taken together, these items arguably send out a mixed message about local control (which has been a staple of the state’s response to the pandemic), and it wouldn’t be surprising if some parents challenge school mask mandates, either here or elsewhere, because of it. (Yankton officials said if parents and/or children insist on not wearing masks, the students will probably be shifted to distance learning.)

Frankly, we put more faith in whatever protection masks can offer students — and adults —than on other scenarios which require lowering defenses altogether.

It’s not an easy or ideal situation, but taking the best course of action for everyone involved requires difficult choices. Mandating masks in most school situations is one such decision, and it’s the wisest one.

kmh

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