"We know who you are": Tennessee parents yell at medical expert who called for mask mandates in schools

“Yelling” is too polite a term for what some of them are doing.

At least two, bald guy and black t-shirt, are overtly threatening the man as he tries to leave.

This scene played out last night after a long school board meeting in Williamson County, Tennessee. Clay Travis has kids there and spoke at the meeting to lobby against mask mandates. (“Refuse!”) Afterward some parents waited outside in the parking lot for the pro-mask experts at the meeting to leave. The message from the two guys I mentioned: Sleep with one eye open.

Cops were there to keep the peace. If they hadn’t been, who knows?

Cases in Williamson County, which has a solid vaccination rate, have surged from 3.7 per 100,000 residents to 44.5 per 100K in the past month, although deaths are still averaging fewer than one per day. In those circumstances, should kids be masking universally when the school year opens?

Katherine Wu made the case in The Atlantic today that while it’s not clear yet if Delta is causing children to get sicker than previous strains of the virus, it’s a fact that pediatricians are now treating more very sick children. A much more contagious variant means many more infections and some of those infections are destined to turn severe. Result: More grave cases. It could be that kids in communities where cases are surging are in more frequent contact with infected people and are therefore getting a higher viral load, accounting for some of those more severe outcomes. Whatever the case, though, experts are worried enough about outbreaks among kids this fall — the encouraging summer data notwithstanding — to want precautions:

To protect kids, the AAP has championed the same layered approach that protects adults: combining masks, good ventilation, hygiene, physical distancing, access to testing, and vaccines for everyone who’s eligible. This tag-team tactic will be especially important as kids head back to school in droves this month and next, Grace Lee, a pediatrician at Stanford University, told me.

Of course, masks are particularly contentious. Not all countries agree on the best approach when it comes to kids. The World Health Organization doesn’t recommend face coverings for children younger than 6. In the U.K., children under 11 haven’t routinely masked during the pandemic, and Munro says that, apart from strict quarantine and isolation protocols, schools in the U.K. will be looking “more or less normal” this year. In the U.S., though, where vaccine uptake has been a disastrous patchwork and the health-care system has already come under off-season strain, the CDC has recommended universal masking in schools for everyone older than 2. Every expert I spoke with stood behind the guidance: Face coverings and other safeguards, they said, would be a must for a successful academic year. Months of data have reinforced the notion that schools haven’t been a significant source of spread for the coronavirus, Beers, the AAP president, told me, which has led the organization to to strongly recommend that children return to in-person learning. But that evidence was amassed, she stressed, “with careful precautions in place,” including masking.

Even Scott Gottlieb thinks masking student is the right move and Gottlieb hasn’t been as hyper-cautious as some other experts. He got on the CDC’s case this past spring for not relaxing its guidance on social distancing more quickly as vaccinations increased and cases dropped.

Each party is gambling that its stance on mandates will be a winner with swing voters, especially the sort of suburban parents who heavily influenced the outcome of the last election. The GOP approach, a la Ron DeSantis, is to oppose mandates of any kind. No to requiring vaccines and an emphatic no to requiring masks in schools. Dems are reprising their “safety first” pitch from last year, claiming they’re doing everything possible to keep kids safe amid a scary new Delta wave by requiring precautions while Republicans obsess about getting back to normal. Which way will voters go on that?

According to KFF’s new poll, it depends on which mandate you have in mind. With respect to mask mandates, parents are with Democrats:

Independents favor mask mandates in schools by a two-to-one margin. Relatedly, Morning Consult recently conducted a poll of parents and got striking results: “A separate Morning Consult survey indicates parents of kids under 13 are broadly supportive of a range of safety measures, including 77 percent who back mask mandates and 76 percent who would support school closures if COVID-19 outbreaks occur.” Moms and dads whose kids aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated are apparently freaked out by Delta and eager to take what precautions they can to protect their children. That’s risky for DeSantis and Republicans.

But on the topic of vaccine mandates for students, parents side with the GOP. Fifty-eight percent who have kids between the ages of 12-17, i.e. who are eligible to be vaccinated, oppose requiring their children to get the shots as a condition of school enrollment. When you follow up by asking them if they’d support a mandate after the FDA fully approves the vaccines, 54 percent remain opposed. The fear of unknown side effects and reports of rare but real cases of heart inflammation in teens who’ve had their shots have made enough parents wary that mandates for kids will be a hard sell. (Although, interestingly, when asked if kids have more to fear from COVID or from the vaccine, parents split 62/34.) Team Biden had better start thinking about that. Rather than a hard mandate for vaccinating kids, the White House could recommend a “shots or masks” approach. A class where all or most students have had their shots should be a class where they can unmask, even though they’d still be at (reduced) risk of infection.

It’ll depend partly on Delta. If, God forbid, we see a nasty wave sweep through classrooms two months from now, many parents will come around on vaccinating their kids without needing inducements.

I’ll leave you with Trump’s surgeon general, Jerome Adams, arguing contra DeSantis that local officials should be in charge of setting their schools’ COVID response.