Why we’re maintaining our COVID protocols
“I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul.”
On the Friday afternoon before we went on Spring Break, kindergartner Max ran up to me in the Quad and yelled, “Mr. Handmaker, I lost a tooth.” While proudly brandishing the tooth in his left hand, he quickly pulled down his mask with his right and showed me the gap between his two front teeth. Max’s glee and eager anticipation of a visit from the tooth fairy provided one of the many joys of working in a school with children of all ages.
Truth be told, I have really missed seeing people’s full faces this year. In the past at morning drop off, Olivia would pull her lips either up or down, wiggle her most recent loose tooth, and give us a daily update-”it’s almost out!” Parents, students, and staff would greet each other daily with big smiles and high fives, and share a laugh or two; our facial expressions would evidence the mutual pleasure in quickly reconnecting with one another.
While fondly recalling these “before-times” memories, I worry about the long-term effects of mask-wearing on children. So much of our learning to interact with each other depends on reading others’ facial expressions. This can be all the more crucial for young children as they learn how to socialize with peers and pick up on non-verbal clues.
So, with these concerns in mind, why are we maintaining our protocols around masking after the Governor has lifted the state mandate? The short answer from a medical standpoint is wearing masks provides one of the best ways to prevent the spread of airborne viruses. Study after study has demonstrated that hundreds of droplets ranging in size from 20-500 micrometers, the typical amount disbursed when uttering a simple phrase, can be blocked with a facial covering. Research has also shown that mask wearing can slow the daily growth rate of the COVID-19.
Some people also hypothesize that masking, along with physical distancing, hand-washing, and a decrease in travel, have led to a lower incidence of flu around the world this year. Much like other forms of medicinal intervention we may not like wearing a facemask, but it shields us individually and collectively.
On a more philosophical level, masking represents one of those sacrifices we make to live in a society where we look out for one another in the interest of the greater good. Jean Jacques Rousseau explained this concept in his 1762 essay “The Social Contract.” This foundational document, which influenced our country’s founders like Thomas Jefferson, states “each member of the community gives himself to it, at the moment of its foundation.”
As Americans, we’ve practiced this same kind of self-sacrifice before. In 1918 during the influenza pandemic, people wore masks and practiced social distancing; from 1941-45 as Americans fought in World War II, people on the home front rationed many products, including automobiles, tires, gasoline, fuel oil, coal, firewood, nylon, silk, and shoes, and common foodstuffs such as coffee, milk, jams, jellies, and meat.
Like buckling our seat belts, stopping at traffic lights, or adhering to speed limits today, wearing a mask imposes a temporary limit on our freedom. Those traffic laws enable us all to drive safely by foregoing unlimited freedom; similarly, enduring the temporary discomfort of putting on a mask allows our entire society, and the individuals therein, to survive and flourish.
I dare say that very few, if any, of us like wearing a mask; it fogs our glasses, scratches our face, and reminds us of our morning coffee or tea breath. Taking off the mask at the end of the day may be one of the greatest joys of coming home. Experiencing the hassle of wearing masks gives me yet one more reason to profoundly respect medical professionals, who have been wearing face masks for a long time.
Just this month the CDC recommended that people who have been vaccinated may gather in small groups and take off their masks. The news regarding COVID continues to move in a positive direction and bodes well for the future. However, there are still indicators that give reason for pause. Although the number of cases in San Antonio has been moving in a downward direction, the variants of COVID around the world continue to spread and in some places may be the predominant form, and we don’t know if we’ll see any spikes from Spring Break and Easter.
In the not too distant future, we will shed our masks and look back on this period with a swirl of emotions ranging from grief to relief. We’re getting closer to life after the pandemic. In the short term, though, we will continue to be vigilant, we will be proactive rather than reactive, and we will take care of each other. When we work together, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.