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Support Mendenhall’s mask order to avoid another lost school year, Editorial Board writes

The potential for disrupted learning could be further diminished if vaccines were also mandated.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students begin the first day of school at Whittier Elementary in West Valley City, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

We have a choice.

We can have some hope that the school year just beginning will be successful and productive, without every family wondering from day to day whether their classrooms will be open or whether they will, once again, be scrambling to set up remote learning systems that just aren’t the same.

Or we can listen to the purveyors of junk science, extreme politics and online disinformation, people who seem to measure freedom by the number of innocent children they will allow to be infected with a deadly disease.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is doing her level best to pull us toward the former. Her pending order that everyone in any of the city’s public and charter schools wear a mask when classes begin Tuesday is the best chance we have of avoiding a third consecutive school year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Well, we would have had a much better chance if the number of adults willing to get vaccinated had jammed the pop-up clinics set up by the Salt Lake County Health Department. Or if members of the Legislature hadn’t bent over to meddle in executive functions and local affairs by banning everything from vaccine incentives to the power county health experts should have to issue mask mandates without fear of being overridden by politicians.

The Salt Lake City School Board should do all it can, pushing the envelope of state law, to support the mayor’s move. Other mayors should follow her lead, and parents and grandparents of children should let all their elected officials know they support it.

A year ago, there was general confidence that children were not as vulnerable to the coronavirus as are adults, especially the elderly. But the delta variant has changed the game, with local doctors calling the lack of a mask mandate a “recipe for disaster,” and the Salt Lake County Health Department predicting 60 new cases among children every day if schools reopen without such precautions.

Even if the under-12 cohort is less likely than their elders to be hospitalized or die, the chances of severe cases are greater than they once were. And the threat of lingering symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating and even heart issues — known, ominously, as “long COVID” — is real and growing.

Garbage information spread on social media and via extreme right-wing broadcasting has been a train wreck blocking the path to victory over the pandemic. Otherwise reasonable people are packing county council and school board meetings, screaming utterly groundless arguments that mask mandates are any more of an imposition on personal freedoms than requirements that students should wear pants and not pee in the halls.

The decision by the Salt Lake County Council to overturn the mask requirement issued by health department boss Dr. Angela Dunn is likely to explode in everyone’s faces soon. Mendenhall hopes to at least mitigate that threat in the city over which she presides by exercising a power that the County Council wouldn’t and the school board can’t.

Ideally, the mayor would also make vaccinations a requirement of entering any school, or any other public building, for those old enough to get one. But that’s probably a bridge too far in this political environment.

Besides, children under age 12 are not yet eligible. Which is why the mask requirement in elementary schools is a must.

Falling behind

Educators talk about the “summer slide.” It’s the perceptible loss in skills and knowledge that many students suffer during summer vacation, which requires every school year to begin with some refresher instruction before classes can move on to the next level. It’s regrettable but not insurmountable, built into the system.

In our current atmosphere, though, teachers are dealing with a learning loss from not only a normal summer break but also from a year or two of schooling interrupted in so many ways. Worse, a great many adults seem to have forgotten the chaos that was caused by schools that opened and closed and opened again, quarantines and isolations, canceled sporting events, proms and other extracurricular events that normally form many of a student’s most cherished memories.

The most important task before us is to keep our children safe. The second most important task, a very close second, is to get our children properly educated, not just academically but emotionally and socially. And that means being in school, in person.

Efforts to do both are already falling apart, mostly in states such as Florida to Texas, where powerful adults have foolishly put claims of “freedom” ahead of common-sense precautions. Schools that opened with the normal amount of anticipation and hope have already been disrupted, schools closed, teachers infected, families quarantined.

That is something that parents and students in Salt Lake City should very much want to avoid this time around. And a mask mandate is the best tool we have for doing that.

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