Thursday, October 06, 2022

There’s been a petition circulating throughout the Bergen County Jewish community, that yeshivot should stop mandating masks in the classroom. The petition cites child development and the continued emotional strain on our children.

This petition comes at a time when the Omicron variant has been impacting both vaccinated and unvaccinated members of the community. Numbers have spiked, classrooms have gone remote, offices have told their staff to work from home for the next few weeks, and healthcare workers are stretched beyond their max. Urgent care sites have closed due to lack of staffing—their staff is sick and unable to work. Lines for testing are as long as they were at the beginning of the pandemic, a terrible sign of the state we are in.

In the same Facebook group where this petition began circulating, questions are asked several times a day about where one can get tested for COVID. Also in the same group: discussions about winter break group discounts at indoor water parks. Discussions about pesach programs. Discussions about indoor birthday parties and indoor meals with families from different yeshivot and communities.

I’m not saying we need to completely restrict our lives. I myself have taken “risks” here and there. However, to pretend we don’t live in this pandemic world at the present moment is irresponsible and it is extending the life of restrictions, time missed with family and friends, and constant fear and concern. Our choices here determine whether we make a kiddush or chillul Hashem.

The Mishna in Avos teaches that caring for others is foundational to our lives. What message are we sending to our kids with this petition? Yes, the argument has been made that it’s “only” a small percentage of children that are at severe risk with COVID. A small percentage end up needing hospitalization. A small percentage die. Do we not care about the small percentage? Do we tell our children that those kids matter less? Do we disregard public health safety guidelines so that we can be a bit more comfortable? Does the family of an immunocompromised child have to completely shut themselves off from the outside world, because getting together with family is too risky right now with the latest spread?

Now, let’s talk about the effect mask wearing has on child development. Younger children are in the stage where they are developing all sorts of skills and abilities, specifically, language and emotional development. Visual and facial cues have always been important in the development of language. I won’t deny that there is a concern that teachers and caregivers being masked is sad and disheartening, and that children are missing out on the full facial expression of those teaching them skills. However, there have been studies conducted far before the pandemic even happened, that younger children actually do not need the full face to register emotions and expressions. Children younger than 9 actually focus on the eye area, even if the full face is uncovered (Roberson, et al 2012). I am sure there are also studies that counteract this one, there are always two sides and multiple theories. I can also argue that children can continue to develop these skills at home, with parents and family members, and can also utilize opportunities to be outside with others for play and skill development.

If we are going to discuss the harm of masking children, we should also discuss the harm that this pandemic as a whole continues to have on our kids. Children experience anxiety and insecurity around changes in their normal routine, seeing their parents or relatives sick, not being able to do the regular beloved holiday traditions with all members of their families, etc. Children also pick up on a lot more than we anticipate they will, and they also hold a lot in, without revealing how much they are feeling to their parents. My four year old niece only recently expressed how scared and isolated she felt when she had COVID last March. Given that over 800,000 Americans alone have died of COVID, how do we expect our kids not to be frightened if they or a family member or friend get diagnosed?

This pandemic truly has been a frightening time for all of us. No one is looking to prolong this. The ones who have gotten vaccinated and have been careful around others want this to end as much as anyone else. The way for this to end is not to pretend it isn’t happening. It is to work together to ensure we slow and stop the spread. One day soon, we will turn the corner. Covid will most likely become an endemic and one we live with. But it’s not there yet. Kids under 5 are still unvaccinated and vulnerable. Pediatric hospitalizations are on the rise, there is no doubt about that. We still haven’t gotten this virus under controllable numbers.

If I truly believed this petition was in good faith, that it was really about child development and well-being, I could understand it. But how can we fight for our children’s lives to go back to “normal” when life clearly isn’t? Several people behind or in support of this petition are admittedly not vaccinated. If we want our children to have some stability and normalcy, the adults need to take responsibility so that it’s not only the children bearing the burden.

If you aren’t vaccinated or boosted, and get upset at new restrictions being placed, or why your doctor’s office phone has a constant busy signal, or how our kids should unmask in schools during a peak, I don’t have a kind answer for you.

Please consider those who are immunocompromised, please consider those who aren’t actually eligible for the vaccine yet, please consider the exhausted nurses and doctors and medical staff, please consider the teachers who can't "work from home," please consider being kinder when talking to those who put themselves at risk to care for others, please think of those stocking the grocery shelves when you walk into the store unmasked, and others who cannot work from the comfort of their homes. It’s imperative for us to impart on our children what it means to be responsible human beings and accountable to our communities.

Lauren Shore
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