Remarks on Gov. Pritzker's P‑12 Mask Mandate

Nurse's Blog, statdate 2021.08.07
Last updated: 2021.08.11

Today's post is going to be different from my previous (and future) posts. Instead of being primarily science-focused, today's post is a commentary on Illinois Gov. Pritzker's press conference on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. You can watch it on YouTube here.

In Gov. Pritzker's press conference Wednesday, he announced that he was enacting a mask mandate for all pre‑kindergarten through 12th grade schools in Illinois, regardless of COVID‑19 vaccination status. Furthermore, he stated that the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) can revoke a school's accreditation if that school is found to be violating the mask mandate. As a registered nurse, a former employee of multiple Illinois school districts, and an individual who has run for school board in the past, I want to share some insight into the politics of this mandate.

The announcement of a mask mandate has evoked strong responses from Illinois residents, ranging from praise to hatred. Proponents of the mandate believe that this will help prevent unnecessary spread of COVID‑19, protect their children, and decrease the possibility of schools needing to close like they did last year. Opponents to the mandate argue that it is an illegal overreach, prevents the develop of social skills, and that masks aren't effective enough to justify a mandate. (By the way, masks are very effective as well as safe. More on that can be found in my earlier post, "Addressing Common COVID‑19 Misconceptions.")

I'm not a lawyer, and I can't say for a fact whether or not Gov. Pritzker has the legal authority to enforce this mandate, so I choose to not comment on that aspect of the debate. If you were to ask my friends, you would learn that I've been critical of Gov. Pritzker in the past; nevertheless, I applaud him this time around. Masks are safe and effective when it comes to preventing the spread of disease; that's why medical professionals have worn them for more than a century while in the presence of at‑risk individuals. While I empathize with those who are concerned about the impact this could have on children's social development, let me counter with this point: in‑person interactions while masked still provide more social opportunities than sitting in front of a computer at home all day for distance learning.

Science supports masking, and most schools already wanted to mandate masking before Gov. Pritzker "forced" them to. That said, school administration can become very political; they try their best to maintain optimal learning environments while also meeting regulatory requirements and pleasing parents and community members. It can become quite the balancing act. In this careful balancing act, many schools across the state decided to tell parents that they were going to strongly encourage masking when school resumed, but ultimately leave it up to personal choice. The school administrators saw that as the best compromise to avoid confrontation or litigation from parents who are against masking in schools.

As I read through the comments sections of news articles and social media posts about this mandate, the most common argument against the mandate that I see is regarding how it is an overreach and that he should leave this decision to the schools and parents. Here's the deal, though: this is what most schools wanted, and without a state mandate, they would be stuck spending an unacceptable amount of time going back and forth between parents that do want masking and parents that don't want masking. Many school districts could even face lawsuits over the matter. I believe that Gov. Pritzker is doing this so that the schools can get back to focusing on teaching. He is offering himself up as a scapegoat (possibly at the cost of his political future), allowing the school boards and administrators to simply say, "Look, our hands are tied. If we don't require masks, we could lose our accreditation." Whether you are for or against masking in schools, I hope that you can see the good in the mandate, because it means that the schools can get back to focusing on teaching kids instead of playing politics. Kids are incredibly adaptable - they can handle wearing a mask while they're in school. Can't we just move past the arguing and be glad that they're going back to school this year?

I'm going to end on a cautionary note that legislators choosing to do the opposite of Gov. Pritzker need to consider: When case numbers became critical at the end of 2020 and adult hospitals ran out of beds, children's hospitals stepped up and accepted adult patients. The Delta variant of SARS‑CoV‑2 is highly transmissible and sending kids to the hospital; fortunately, the vast majority of those kids will recover. However, if infection and hospitalization rates continue following the path that they are on right now, we may very well be headed for a repeat situation. This time, however, the children's hospitals could already be at capacity with sick kids. Where will the sick adults go when their own hospitals run out of beds?

This "what if" that I'm presenting is a worst-case scenario and we still have a chance to avoid it. I know masking isn't perfect, but it helps! Preliminary research is suggesting that the masking and social distancing practiced throughout 2020 and 2021 may have even eradicated two strains of influenza. When there is a proven, simple precaution like masking available, doesn't it make sense to use it?