The Way We’re Approaching Delta Leaves Kids Out of the Equation

On Wednesday, a raucous crowd of unmasked anti-mask protesters brought a premature end to a Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting. Agenda item #9 was a board vote on whether they would formally support Governor John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate in classrooms. They never got to agenda item #9, however, due to the protesters disrupting the meeting and refusal to wear masks, which prompted the board to motion for early adjournment. They did on a prompt 8-2 decision. 

The protesters chanted, “no more masks” and “we will not comply” repeatedly disrupting the meeting. At one point, they were seemingly lead in their protest by Reverend Tony Spell, a controversial pastor from Central who has continually defied pandemic-related government mandates. He was arrested last year for holding massive services despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

I feel obliged to speak frankly here, as the question of child rights is close to my heart – regardless of their feelings or misperceptions, these protestors are a public danger to their own children and the rest of the children of Louisiana – their disingenuous approach speaks to a level of deep, illogical neuroticism that stunts our ability to respond politically. I’m sure many of them feel they are fighting a noble fight in defense of their children, but that is far from the truth.

Louisiana tops the list of COVID-19 death rates by state presently at 1.2 per 100,000. The national average is .28 as of August 22nd. Child COVID infections are rising significantly with the delta variant with Dr. John Vanciere, director of community testing and vaccination outreach at LSU Health Shreveport’s Center for Emerging Viral Threats, stating on August 6th that 20% of the state’s new infections are children. That figure is now closer to 28% now from the 6,606 new cases reported Wednesday. Dr. Vanciere stated, “Children in Louisiana have died of Covid, and more unfortunately will die.” 

Tony Spell declared defiantly to the crowd, “They can’t arrest all of us” and he’s right because no one is trying to. Those like Spell think everyone wants to arrest them (maybe because he actually was for his flagrant disregard for the law…you know, like a criminal), but most just want to understand why we can’t get on the same page. A council member when asked why the mask-less protesters were not removed from the meeting (after a state-wide mask mandate) said the board “went above and beyond” to hear out the protestors. The anti-mask agenda is one that has elaborately created a non-existent threat, but its elaborate nature is why we must take it seriously and not simply dismiss it as reckless. It’s bigger than logic now and should be treated that way.

Allow me to elaborate on that last point. One image from WWL’s report strikes me as poignant. When a board member reminded the audience that the statewide mask mandate applied to the meeting and threatened removal, one woman exclaimed, “I can’t hear you with the masks on. I read lips and I’m sick of it.” There was a sign language interpreter at the front of the room, unmasked, and mouthing along with board members as they spoke. Reasonably, one can view this as either incredibly disingenuous or unobservant to the point of irrelevancy – either way, the outrage we see literally screams that it is outrage for outrage’s sake. 

This isn’t about the protesters though, no matter how much they’d like it to be about them. It’s about kids. And their parents. Immunocompromised kids. Immunocompromised parents. Families with legitimate religious exemptions. Your kids. You. 

The issue is there seems to be very little attention to nuance about a situation that is so complex that it has halted the world. Insofar as there are people that do not take COVID-19 seriously and do not observe necessary public health precautions, their children are a public health threat in in-person classes to children and families who do. This isn’t the responsibility of those children, however, and my heart breaks for them. What emerges from this image is that many children in Louisiana, beyond their power, are being put at risk because of a neurotic and misinformed political agenda.

To be clear, there are legitimate medical and religious exceptions to vaccination that have been consistently observed for decades. Epidemiologists accept these exceptions generally because they comprise a low enough percent of the population to not interfere with the pursuit of herd immunity. These are not the arguments we are hearing today. The arguments we hear today from anti-maskers are based in speculative misinformation from online gurus or certifiably quack doctors seeking profit, and an aggressively exaggerative conservative media campaign.

There have been eight confirmed child deaths resulting from COVID-19 in Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. I think many would look at that number, eight, and shrug it off because we live in a big, wide world. To me, that number is huge. That’s eight families who have lost a child. These were not necessarily the children of anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers, this can happen to anybody right now. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of children who didn’t die, but will suffer from long COVID, which we’re only beginning to understand.

Now is a very precarious time. COVID is coming back in full force with the Delta variant and it’s unclear when the spectre will recede. Children are dying now, but the response is less than before. Many politicians want to save face by not even venturing into the territory of suggesting another full-scale lockdown. That attitude has left a lack of nuance that endangers children immensely.

It’s this simple: there should be a funded state-mandate that schools have a virtual attendance option for grade levels that have students aged 12 or under, or for those with legitimate medical and/or religious exemptions, are unvaccinated, or are sick with COVID-19. Classrooms should be outfitted to allow for virtual attendance across the board. Such a situation would also de-crowd schools and aid existing prevention mechanisms. This should also be agreeable to those who oppose the classroom mask mandates by giving them an option that doesn’t require masks. If they don’t like it, well, as they say, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If this applies to you, either you sincerely don’t want your child to wear a mask and that is resolved, or – perhaps – you’re trying to wage a culture war that politically overlooks that your child could be the ninth child death in Louisiana. 

Many universities in Louisiana did this at the onset of the pandemic and continue to practice it today. That said, most American universities and schools have also required a litany of vaccines for enrollment for a long time with similar exemptions outlined above. Universities are not the same as primary schools by any means, but that doesn’t help the point of anyone in opposition. University students can get the vaccine, which – if anything – shows that these precautions are above and beyond what has even been suggested as the primary and secondary level. This abundance of caution should be the model across the board. We should also bear in mind is that the vaccine is still not approved for those 12 and under by the CDC. There’s extensive testing being done on this question, but it is not settled yet and we should act accordingly. Again, with an abundance of caution. 

In-person teaching is obviously a preferable situation, I won’t deny that, and it’s unclear how the pandemic will affect children who have had to live through it, but unvaccinated children should not be unnecessarily put at risk because politicians want people to feel like we’re returning to normalcy. Whatever the negative effect of online learning is for children, it can’t be worse than death. Nothing is normal right now and it won’t be until people start taking this virus seriously. Children are dying because of a lack of due diligence on the part of fringe protesters and short-sighted government officials. Our ICU beds across the state are packed and preventing people with serious diseases and injuries from getting prompt and necessary care. There’s no waiting for the other shoe to drop, it already has – we need to adapt. 

We often forget that children have little to no voice in politics. We have to be their voice, which means putting aside our own politics for their wellbeing. They need representation because how we live as children has immense implications on the rest of our lives. It’s time to swallow whatever occluding political pride that has infected this discussion. If the state can’t hold a full school board meeting because of how strongly people (including many parents!) are resisting COVID precautions, they should not expect children to have to go to school in-person. One death is already too many. We’re at eight.

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