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The Monongalia County Board of Education says that, in the coming school year, masks will be optional. But optional masking at schools cannot be the solution.

Our children have a fundamental, constitutional right to safe public schooling. As the West Virginia Supreme Court explained in the 1997 case of Cathe A. v. Doddridge County Board of Education:

“If West Virginians cannot have a reasonable degree of confidence that the schools that their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors attend and work in are safe and secure, the survival of the ‘thorough and efficient’ public school system which our Constitution itself mandates is in question.”

Optional masking instills no confidence that our schools will be safe.

All school-related COVID-19 mitigation measures have, thus far, been predicated on universal masking in classrooms. Universal masking was one of six mitigation strategies the state Board of Education imposed on county boards earlier this year. The state board imposed those mitigation strategies after consulting state COVID-19 czar Dr. Clay Marsh, who deemed in-person learning safe, provided universal masking was observed.

Notably, although the state board has since passed the buck to county boards, leaving masking to their discretion, Marsh’s opinion remains unchanged as of last week, when he spoke of the highly contagious delta variant.

Optional masking is unproven as a mitigation measure. Cloth and even disposable surgical masks will not adequately protect the wearer in a nonuniversal masking classroom for the length of the school day, with most if not all students unvaccinated.

Setting aside that it is difficult to find KN95 masks and other respirators that properly fit young children, the effectiveness of such masks in a nonuniversal masking classroom for the length of the school day is unknown.

If we do not yet know (and cannot know beforehand) the efficacy of such respirators under these conditions, then optional masking cannot possibly be a safe solution at this time.

Even if KN95 or equivalent masks could effectively protect the child-wearer in schools, gambling that all children have access to such masks is not a safe bet.

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Some families will be unable to afford these quality masks in sufficient quantity, given that these masks are only supposed to be worn once and then discarded.

Will the Monongalia School Board supply KN95 or equivalent masks to all schoolchildren under an optional mask policy?

No? Then it is fair to ask, how are they spending the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan funds that have been appropriated and allocated for COVID-19 mitigation?

Has the county school board improved HVAC ventilation in all of the schools? Have they installed air purifiers in all classrooms?

No? Then all the risk and financial burden of mitigation will be borne entirely by those who elect to wear masks under an optional masking policy.

This “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost” does not exemplify the best of public schooling — it represents the antithesis of what public education is supposed to be about, serving the public good.

Speaking of the public good, optional masking is not only unsafe for our unvaccinated children who are vectors for this virus, it also is unsafe for the community at large — particularly in communities with low vaccination rates.

I remind the Monongalia board members that they have a foremost obligation under the law to maintain safe public schools for our children. That obligation is not just legal, it is a moral obligation, because the law entrusts to their custody and control all of our children, including our most vulnerable who are unvaccinated, as well as those who might be at risk for COVID-19.

As a father of preschool and elementary school-aged children, I ask the county board to reconsider this optional masking policy. Mandate universal masking until, at the very least, all schoolchildren have an opportunity to become fully vaccinated.

Joshua Weishart is a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law.

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