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John Havlicek: Require masks in School District of La Crosse

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I firmly believe that we need to require masks for everyone that enters our school district buildings here in the School District of La Crosse.

There, I said it. Let the arguments about freedom and carbon dioxide commence. Then let them end, quickly. Those arguments are simply not worth the column-inches.

Let me state clearly what every K12 public school teacher pretty much knows: last year was not something we want to repeat. We did the best we could. The students did the best they could. The parents did the best they could. It wasn’t great, but it was the best we could do.

Teachers, students, and parents all learned a lot last year, and some of the things we learned we will keep as we move forward. However, that is not a learning experience we wish to repeat; so, let’s not. The only way to avoid a repeat is to keep all the students and adults safe at school, and an important step toward that is universal masking at all levels.

The evidence for masking is quite clear, but allow me to run through it quickly. The delta variant of COVID is considerably more contagious, several times more so. As it sweeps through the southern United States, we are seeing spikes in cases and hospitalizations that dwarf what happened in pre-vaccine months. In Florida, the previous high for cases was about 19,000 people in a day. As of August 7, it was almost 24,000. And, we must consider that along with the fact that just over 50% of the population of Florida has been vaccinated. So, that makes the de facto case rate over double the case rate prior to vaccines being widely available.

Second, we know that the delta variant is much more likely to infect children, our students. They are catching COVID much more frequently, and their symptoms are much more serious, than prior to vaccines being available. I sincerely hope that everyone aged 12-18 is getting vaccinated, but I know that some won’t, and I know that some cannot due to other health concerns. They are being put at a terrible risk if they are exposed to this deadly delta variant. In order for them to also be able to be in school in person, they must be safe.

Then, we know that even if we are vaccinated (as I am, and as are most teachers and as are many but not all of our students) we can still get the delta variant, even if the symptoms are milder, and (here is the crucial piece) we can transmit it just as much as someone who is unvaccinated. So, a teacher can get the delta variant at school, and then carry it home to their vaccine-ineligible 9-year-old child, or their immunocompromised family member who lives with them. Or, a student can take it home to their parent or grandparent, etc., who is unvaccinated for whatever reason, and that person can die from the exposure. So, the students’ families are now at risk, the teachers’ families are now at risk, despite them taking all precautions possible, because they are in schools that have not taken the basic precaution of requiring masks.

Finally, none of us want to return to what we had to do last year, in terms of virtual schooling, hybrid models, etc. We all want the kids in our buildings for as-close-to-regular school as we can. We all know that is what is best for kids, and that is what we want to do. The surest way to achieve that is to keep everyone in the buildings safe: the students, the staff, parents, etc.

The surest, simplest, most effective way to do that is to take basic precautions such as requiring masks in our public schools.

John Havlicek is president of the La Crosse Education Association.

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