The Student News Site of Alexandria City High School

Theogony

The Student News Site of Alexandria City High School

Theogony

The Student News Site of Alexandria City High School

Theogony

Tensions Rise as Governor Youngkin Gives Anti-Mask Mandate Executive Order

Guy Cardwell and Max Tankersley

Staff Writers

 Amid the rise of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, Governor Glenn Youngkin has issued an executive order barring schools from instituting mask mandates, which Alexandria City Public Schools has rejected in a January 20 School Board vote. Theogony interviewed students about their views regarding the mandate.

Perceptions of risk have varied wildly depending on one’s political affiliation. In comparison to previous COVID-19 strains, case rates for the Omicron variant is vastly higher. According to data from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering, daily COVID-19 cases per million people in 2021 peaked at around 750 in early January. In comparison, this January saw peaks of 2,400 daily cases. However, case numbers do not translate directly to the mortality rate. This year around 7 people in 1 million are dying daily from COVID-19, which is a decrease compared to 10 people per 1 million in the deadliest parts of last year.

One controversial disease prevention practice has come to fray. Doctors Marty Makary and H. Cody Meissner wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal criticizing mask mandates in schools. “Facial expressions are integral to human connection,” they said. “Covering a child’s face mutes their nonverbal forms of communication.” This concern becomes especially relevant for neurodivergent students who have increased reliance on reading facial expressions. Even disregarding the harms of masking on communication, some argue that the effectiveness of masks in schools is not entirely clear. “We could find only a single retrospective study on [masks in schools], and its results were inconclusive,” said the authors. There is thorough research on the effects of masks generally, but school-specific data is sparse. 

Additionally, there may be a reason to believe that COVID-19 hospitalization numbers are inflated. “The CDC acknowledges that not all of these children were in the hospital for Covid.” Any admission to the hospital of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 is counted, even if hospitalization is occurring for totally different reasons. 

On January 15, Youngkin signed an executive order that disallowed public schools from issuing mask mandates, but the order had a mixed reception. A past Virginia statute required schools to follow CDC guidelines to “the maximum extent practical,” which would imply a mask mandate. Within hours, Alexandria City Public Schools released a statement indicating their decision to not follow the order. Seven school systems have sued the state, claiming that the executive order should not supersede decisions made by the school board. 

Critics emphasize the severity of the virus. In the entirety of the United States, there have been over 857,000 deaths from COVID-19. Over 27,000 total cases have been reported in Alexandria, along with 165 deaths, and Alexandria is reporting about 100 daily new cases (CDC). According to Mayo Clinic, masks are effective in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. “Face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as getting vaccinated, frequent hand-washing, and physical distancing, can help slow the spread of the virus.” Even without school-specific data, robust studies support the effectiveness of masks indoors.

For many students, horror stories describing the social cost of masks seem overblown. “I think it is a little bit harder to hear others, but I don’t mind for the most part,” said junior Hannah Chidlow. Others feel more strongly about them, emphasizing their importance in preventing the spread of COVID-19. “Wearing masks is important because […] they are less likely to spread [COVID-19] to other people…” said junior Alena Elkins. “It’s about thinking about others.”

Across Virginia, debates rage about the morality of mask mandates. For some on the right, the new wave of Omicron seems overblown, and masks are an unnecessary and costly measure, but for many local students, mask mandates seem like the right choice. In the words of junior Micah Craine, “It’s a tiny sacrifice we’re making to save lives; I think [masks] are worth it.”

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Tensions Rise as Governor Youngkin Gives Anti-Mask Mandate Executive Order