The Pandemic and the Peanut

The raging controversy over mask mandates has spread from school board meetings and statehouses to the courts. These issues are currently being litigated in fourteen states, from Texas and Florida to Kentucky and Montana, according to the Associated Press.

A number of school board meetings have been marked by what the AP termed “rancorous debate.” The rancor has extended to verbal abuse and even approached violence, as parents loudly advocate for their children, either to insist on requiring masks or to insist that they not be required.

Once-soporific board sessions have become cauldrons of emotion in what many seem to feel is a life-or-death struggle for protection from the irresponsible behavior of their neighbors, or conversely, freedom from governmental tyranny and the arrogance of wrong-minded experts.

It’s hard to gauge just how virulent the matter has become. The news media is wont to pick on the most sensational cases, like the Nevada school board member who said he had thoughts of taking his own life before resigning after threats and harassment. Or the South Carolina parents who warned teachers not to distance their unmasked children from others, while other parents insisted teachers separate their masked children from those without, as Reuters reported.

National School Boards Association interim executive director, Chip Slaven, was quoted as saying there isn’t evidence of widespread departures. Most board members, who serve on a volunteer basis, are sticking with it, even though the price of civic-mindedness has become increasingly hard to bear.

That price includes recall efforts. This year, there have been 59 such recall initiatives against 147 board members, versus an average of 23 recall moves against 52 members from 2006 to 2020, according to Ballotpedia, a non-partisan site that provides information on elections and other ballot matters. Since only 23 states allow for recall of school board members, it would be fair to assume that if all states allowed it, there’d be lots more. It’s a big year for school board recalls.

With parents, and school board members at each others’ throats, prompted by the bans or mandates of state and local officials, resort to litigation was an inevitable outcome.

Some of the arguments on both sides may be aired and clarified, which ought to mitigate the good-against-evil mindset.

For example, while the main pro-health argument has been made by those who seek to protect their kids from the unmasked contagion of others, there’s another side that deserves to be heard as well.

Some children experience difficulty breathing under the mask, a problem that has to be taken seriously. Unlike adults who can speak up for themselves, children may be too frightened to do so. The adult-run courts now have that job.

As for the mask proponents, besides the basic plea for public safety, they have pointed out that schools routinely impose strictures on students that are accepted with little complaint. If they can make dress codes which are often annoying to the kids, they should be empowered to make pandemic codes, which annoy their parents.

Then there is the peanut argument. Ruth Colker, a law professor at Ohio State University and a disability-law expert, argues that if schools have bans on peanuts to protect kids with potentially fatal peanut allergies that can be triggered by particles in the air, they should be allowed to required masks to stop the spread of toxic covid particles.

“COVID is just like peanuts. In fact, is more contagious,” said Colker.

If that sounds unanswerable, don’t think the other side can’t also throw food analogies around.

NBC News in Boston quoted parents who said the cloth coverings could mask the critical first signs of an allergic reaction, such as flare-up around the lips, and that could lead to a dangerous delay in treatment.

Clear legal rulings determining just what public officials can and cannot do in regard to pandemic regulations are awaited. For the law-abiding citizenry and their leaders, who comprise the vast majority, that should be sufficient to tamp down the toxicity of the debate, if not to finally settle the matter.

School districts which are currently defying the governors of their states might well defy the judges who back those governors. Sending in the National Guard to enforce the laws on a state-by-state basis would be absurd, though it’s not inconceivable that they might be called on to assist defunded local police in keeping the peace.

And speed, more than “all deliberate speed,” is needed, as the shouting gets louder in the approach to the new school year.

So far, though, the legal machinery has produced mixed results. For example, in Arkansas and Arizona, mask proponents won victories, while the Texas Supreme Court blocked a school mask mandate last Thursday.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to be embroiled in this, but there is a strong chance it will end up on their doorstep. A High Court decision would hopefully clarify the legal questions, but won’t bring this contentious, divisive debate to an end.