This week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit asking the courts to overturn Governor Glenn Youngkin’s executive order rescinding the state’s mask mandates in schools.
Youngkin’s order does not prevent students from wearing masks. Citing the fact that, while the C.D.C. recommends masks, “its research has found no statistically significant link between mandatory masking for students and reduced transmission of COVID-19,” it gives parents the right to make their own risk assessments and choices about masking. Youngkin clarified that local school districts could keep mandates in place, but they must now allow parents to opt-out of them for their children. “Parents have a right to opt-out,” Youngkin told reporters. “They know what is best for their kids.”
On the other side of the masking issue, parents in Loudoun County, Virginia, are suing the school board for failing to comply with Youngkin’s order and for threatening suspensions and other punishments to students who fail to mask up in school. One school named in the lawsuit is the same Loudoun County school that last year covered up a rape committed by a transgender student by transferring him to another school. Loudoun County has already suspended 29 students for refusing to mask. (Other states have similarly harsh penalties, and many other suits related to masking policy are pending in Virginia and in other states).
We’re in an odd cultural moment when an organization that was traditionally dedicated to protecting civil liberties goes to federal court to argue for more restrictions on those liberties. It’s a moment in which school administrators refuse to protect children from sexual assault if the act is committed by someone who has chosen to change genders, but they’ll eagerly punish students for observing a democratically elected governor’s order giving them the choice not to wear a mask.
The ACLU lawsuit also fails to make sense on its own terms. The organization claims to speak for the rights of disabled children in the Virginia school system, and hyperbolically invokes the Civil Rights movement to justify claims like, “Universal mask use may be necessary to protect some children . . . For many of these children, Governor Youngkin has effectively barred the schoolhouse door.” But as any parent of an autistic or hearing-impaired child will tell you, masks prevent their children from being able to participate fully in school. And what of the vast majority of students who struggle to hear each other speak and make meaningful, normal social connections because their faces are obscured by masks all day. Do their rights not matter?
The U.S. has been an outlier about masking policies for children throughout the pandemic. In Europe, young children were never required to mask in schools, even before vaccinations were widely available. Children under 12 rarely had to wear masks all day, and never outdoors during recess or sports activities, as many American children are still forced to do. The World Health Organization recommends that children under 5 should never mask; and that children under 12 should wear masks only under certain conditions, and only after taking into account the negative masking has been shown to have on learning and social development.
Yet half of American schoolchildren, including very young children, are still required to mask in schools. In many deep-blue states and cities, universal masking is required even of fully vaccinated children. Many areas are now doubling down on masking policies, refusing to provide metrics for ending the requirement and insisting children should now wear more restrictive N95 masks.
But the dam is beginning to break. In the past few weeks, experts and parents have been more outspoken about demanding an end to masking in schools. In places that have had strict mandates in place for years, the public has been reminded yet again that the elected leaders and public health bureaucrats who impose these rules face no consequences for failing to follow them themselves. In California, the state’s governor and the mayor of Los Angeles both recently flouted the indoor mask mandate while attending a football game.
This is not the first instance of hypocritical masking behavior by Newsom, of course, but this time, instead of apologizing, he brazenly lied to the press about going unmasked at the game; Mayor Garcetti was even more blinkered, claiming he held his breath when having his picture taken with an also-unmasked—and immunocompromised—“Magic” Johnson and San Francisco Mayor London Breed (Breed is yet another Democratic politician who doesn’t follow her own rules).
The kids have learned something by watching the hypocrisy of their elders. As one California high school student who was removed from campus by security after refusing to wear a mask this week noted, “I explained that I was not going to wear a mask if Governor Newsom was not going to. I was following his example.” She could just as easily have invoked the hypocrisy of many other California politicians, including serial offender House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who fined fellow House members for refusing to wear masks in Congress but ignores the rules when she’s in her home state.
If elected leaders, celebrities, and even the president can choose when and if to wear a mask, shouldn’t the rest of the country have that option? Many parents believe so. In places like California, they are organizing to provide legal defense for students who engage in peaceful noncompliance with mask mandates.
Of course, the main reason draconian masking policies have continued is the Biden administration’s unwillingness to declare the pandemic effectively over and to announce an end to mandatory masking requirements. The constant dithering has emboldened public health bureaucrats, elected officials loath to give up their emergency powers, and teachers’ unions to double down on draconian masking and other COVID-related restrictions.
As Politico reported, Biden’s efforts to announce a “new normal” with regard to COVID are hampered by fears of future variants and a felt need to pander to Democratic voters’ fears. “As to what metrics will signal success against the virus, officials said they’re still figuring that out — and hope they’ll know it when they see it.” The White House has also “ruled out making a splashy show or major announcement regarding a hard pivot back to normalcy,” and, notably, is “unlikely to drop its indoor masking recommendations.”
That’s unlikely to help Biden’s already-dismal approval ratings, and it will create even more problems for Democrats who are up for reelection this year. As red-state leaders continue to respond to changing COVID realities on the ground, taking into account voters’ strong desire for clear off-ramps for masking and other pandemic-era policies, more blue-state voters (especially the parents of school kids required to mask) are asking an important question: Why should the public listen to elected leaders who ignore the science in favor of fear-mongering and pandering to special interest groups, and who refuse to follow the rules themselves?