The fight over mask mandates in school.

Plus, a question about that impromptu trip to Afghanistan.
Isaac Saul Sep 1, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.”

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The mask mandate lawsuit and a question about that trip two Congressmen took to Afghanistan.

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Tangle audio…

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Quick hits.

  1. A law that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape and incest, went into effect in Texas at midnight last night (The new law). Meanwhile, the state also voted to advance a wave of changes to their elections that Democrats had fled the state to prevent from becoming law. (The bill)
  2. Heavy clashes are taking place in Panjshir Valley, the last province in Afghanistan that the Taliban has yet to control. (The fighting)
  3. Southern Louisiana residents are growing desperate for food, power and clean water in the sweltering aftermath of Hurricane Ida. (The aftermath)
  4. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has threatened any companies who comply with the House’s Jan. 6 investigators asking for phone records of members of Congress. (The investigation)
  5. An Afghan interpreter who helped rescue then-Vice President Biden in Afghanistan 13 years ago said he has been left behind during the evacuation. (The plea)

What D.C. is talking about.

Mask mandates. On Monday, the Education Department opened civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states that banned mask requirements in schools, or limited those that were already in place. The Education Department said the policies could discriminate against students with disabilities or those who have health conditions that would prevent them from safely attending school in districts that were not able to mandate mask-wearing. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights announced the investigations into Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

President Joe Biden said he would use the power of the federal government to ensure schools could implement Covid-19 safety measures, and the decision to investigate these states marks a major escalation in that battle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal mask wearing for both students and teachers in the classroom, guidance that was issued in response to the more contagious Delta variant of Covid-19.

But some states have responded by passing their own laws limiting or fully banning mask mandates. In Iowa, for example, a state law forbids school boards from imposing mask mandates. In Tennessee, an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee allows families to opt out of mask mandates. Other states, like Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona, have also tried to ban mask requirements, but those prohibitions have been thrown out by courts or simply ignored by school districts. In some cases, like South Carolina, the top education officials at the state level are clashing with the government and siding with the Biden administration. In Florida, the state is now attempting to withhold funds from two school districts requiring masks, despite the fact a court ruled that the state did not have the power to ban mandates or withhold salaries.

About 6 in 10 Americans say students and teachers should be required to wear face masks while in school, according to an Associated Press poll. An Axios/Ipsos poll put the number closer to 7 in 10. Parents were slightly more likely than all adults to say students and teachers in K-12 schools should be required to wear masks.

Below, we’ll take a look at some of the commentary over the clashes between states and the federal government, states and their school boards, and the arguments over mask mandates in schools.

Then my take.


What the left is saying.

The left argues that school districts should be able to keep their kids safe, and banning mask mandates is a violation of civil rights.

In The Atlantic, Wendy Parmet said we have entered a new phase of Covid-19 legal battles where people are suing their states in an effort to get protection from the virus.

“The most interesting cases to date, however, have been brought on behalf of children with disabilities who claim that the anti-mask measures violate federal laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities,” Parmet wrote. “The theory is that by failing to allow schools to take reasonable steps such as mandating masks to make schools safe for children who are at high risk of complications from COVID-19, the states have violated students’ civil rights… By focusing on students’ rights to be safe at school, this new round of litigation seeks a very different type of freedom than plaintiffs sought in the earlier round. Now, instead of demanding the freedom from health measures, plaintiffs are seeking the freedom that, in a pandemic, only health measures can provide.

“These new cases offer the courts an important opportunity to correct the simplistic view of freedom evident in the initial round of litigation,” Parmet said. “Still, in a well-functioning polity, we would not need litigation to ensure that children can remain healthy at school. Public-health measures would be less contentious and less often litigated. Although courts have a crucial role to play, especially in protecting the rights of the most vulnerable individuals, judges generally lack training or experience in public health. They are not well equipped to make public-health policy, which is what they have been doing, far too frequently, throughout the pandemic.”

The Washington Post editorial board criticized two Virginia legislators who sent a letter to school boards telling them they can ignore mask mandates without fear of legal repercussions, despite the fact the legislators helped pass the mask mandates in the first place.

“Encouraging citizens and local authorities to ignore the law is a cynical and dangerous game, especially when it’s played by lawmakers themselves,” the board wrote. “In this case, the cynicism comes with a helping of hypocrisy: Ms. [Siobhan] Dunnavant, the bill’s chief sponsor, is an obstetrician in Richmond whose own medical practice, HCA Virginia Physicians, requires patients, staff and visitors to wear masks ‘to ensure the safety of all,’ according to its website.

“A small handful of Virginia school districts initially balked at the CDC guidance on mask-wearing,” the board said. “All but one or two then complied when the state’s health commissioner announced an indoor mask mandate for state schools on Aug. 12. The senators’ letter might not prompt open defiance, but it could prompt some systems to encourage parents to opt their children out on lax pretexts. That’s what happened in Fauquier County, west of D.C. Then, barely two weeks after opening, the 11,000-student system reported 117 covid-19 cases, with more than 570 students and staff in quarantine. There’s a cost to ignoring public health advice in a pandemic. Elected officials have a responsibility to warn their constituents about that cost, not goad them into gratuitous risk-taking.”

In The Nation, David Perry wrote about being the father of a 14-year-old boy who is autistic and has Down syndrome.

“These laws promise him a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment adapted, within reason, to his needs,” Perry said. “Notice the different components: One type of law focuses on the content of the education itself and provides the supports and adaptations to ensure he’s learning. Another makes sure the education is safe and accessible to him, including the school building itself… I asked Matthew Dietz, litigation director at Disability Independence Group Inc, whether this lawsuit represented a new legal strategy. Laughing, he told me, ‘I try not to do new arguments because new arguments usually lose. This is the oldest ADA argument that there is. Kids need to go to school. They are entitled to a reasonable accommodation. It’s not an undue burden at all for somebody else to wear a mask. This is an argument that’s 40 years old.’

“Meanwhile,” Perry said, “kids are going back to school, case counts are rising, and pediatric hospitals are filling. At one Houston hospital, hospitalizations for kids soared from single digits to more than 30 in less than a week. In Hillsborough County, Fla., about 13,000 staff and students—over 5 percent of the total staff and public school student population—are currently Covid positive or in quarantine due to exposure.”


What the right is saying.

The right argues that the science of the effectiveness of masking children is inconclusive and the Department of Education is overstepping its boundaries with this lawsuit.

Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Dr. H. Cody Meissner, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Tufts Children’s Hospital, said they weren’t sure if masks would even help.

“Do masks reduce Covid transmission in children? Believe it or not, we could find only a single retrospective study on the question, and its results were inconclusive,” they wrote in early August. “Yet two weeks ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sternly decreed that 56 million U.S. children and adolescents, vaccinated or not, should cover their faces regardless of the prevalence of infection in their community. Authorities in many places took the cue to impose mandates in schools and elsewhere, on the theory that masks can’t do any harm.

“That isn’t true,” they wrote. “Some children are fine wearing a mask, but others struggle. Those who have myopia can have difficulty seeing because the mask fogs their glasses. (This has long been a problem for medical students in the operating room.) Masks can cause severe acne and other skin problems. The discomfort of a mask distracts some children from learning. By increasing airway resistance during exhalation, masks can lead to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. And masks can be vectors for pathogens if they become moist or are used for too long.”

Corey DeAngelis wrote that masks are turning Democrats “in favor of school choice.”

“The good news is that we might find some unity amid such division,” DeAngelis wrote. “A nationwide poll by Echelon Insights in August found that 79% of respondents with an opinion support allowing families to take their children’s taxpayer-provided education money to a private or home school if their public school doesn’t mandate masks. Surprisingly, Democrats favored this school-choice proposal more than Republicans, with support at 82% and 78%, respectively.

“We’ve all learned a lot over the past 18 months,” he added. “The battles over school reopenings, masking and curriculum have revealed the main problem with the one-size-fits-all public school system. Many Republicans supported school choice well before 2020. But Democratic voters are now also realizing that uniform school systems won’t always work in their favor… Some policy makers are beginning to figure out that choice is the best solution. In Arizona, a new program allows families access to federal relief funding to pay for private education if their children’s public school mandates masks, suspends in-person instruction, or subjects students to other Covid-19 constraints. The Florida Board of Education recently unanimously approved allowing all families to take their children’s state-funded education dollars to a private school if they disagree with their public school’s masking rules. Funding students directly and empowering all families—and not forcing one-size-fits-all mandates—is the way forward.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights lawsuit was “a contortion of law.”

“Far from being a question of civil rights, the wisdom of mask mandates, like all Covid mitigation measures, is an empirical and policy debate,” they said. “Certainly no one would suggest that anti-mask policies are based on animus toward students with disabilities. Most data suggests the danger of coronavirus in children is comparable to that of the influenza virus, though the jury is still out on children and the more contagious Delta variant.

“The OCR’s letter to the states notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masking for students ‘age 2 and older,’” the board noted. “Yet that measure is not cost-free: Last year Susan Hopkins, a top U.K. public-health official, recommended against masking young children because ‘it’s really important that they can see facial expressions in order to develop their communications and language skills.’ Presumably seeing facial expressions is as important for children with certain disabilities, yet it would also be wrong for the federal government to try to ban mask mandates under the guise of civil rights. Our view is that school districts are best situated to decide school masking policies for themselves. Some governors may even have exceeded their statutory authority by dictating school masking policies, as judges recently ruled in Texas and Florida. Yet the OCR’s effort to federalize the issue is an abuse of its power.”


My take.

There are so many interesting threads here it’s hard to know where to start. But the science of masking children is probably the best.

The plain reality is that we don’t have a lot of great studies on this and I do not see nearly enough to tell you affirmatively that mandating masks on kids will make schools much safer. What we do know is that in schools where the smorgasbord of prevention methods — regular testing, masking and good ventilation, for instance — are put in place, we often see success in limiting Covid-19 spread. But it’s hard to pull apart the threads and know which measure is doing what.

It’s also true that the people claiming masks are harmless are wrong. No, you’re not going to get carbon dioxide poisoning (and suggesting as much makes you sound ridiculous), but masks do increase anxiety, impede socialization, and will almost certainly cause breathing difficulties for some children. Little annoyances, like acne or not being able to see through your glasses, may seem minor to us adults — but for kids they can be much bigger stressors.

And, as I’ve said repeatedly in this newsletter: the relative threat of Covid-19 to children is still on par with things like the flu, and most cloth masks you’re wearing are far less effective than an N95 mask. But it’s also not just about the kids! Every school has adults — and not just teachers. Administrators, low-wage cafeteria workers, custodial staff, and so on. Many of them are elderly or at-risk, and they deserve protection, too. The teachers I’ve spoken to in New York City schools that are trying to reopen have said unanimously that Covid-19 is spreading, is a huge distraction, and is forcing kids and teachers into isolation. They support basically any measure that will reduce the spread and presence of the virus even a little bit.

For real-world examples, we can also look abroad. In the United Kingdom, students under 12 and teachers are not mandated to wear masks in the classroom. During their own Delta surge, schools stayed open and they were not a higher site of transmission than the community at large. The Delta wave in England did not turn schools into a driver of the surge. But — and this is a big “but” — the kids there were also being rapid tested by their parents on a weekly basis. This is a good example of something Americans could be doing as an alternative to masking.

The politics of all this are fascinating, too. Covid-19 has exposed some flexible ideologies on both sides. Conservatives who often harp on local and states rights are now attempting to take away the choice for millions of people by banning mask mandates in their states. Meanwhile, liberals who have often leaned into federal or state regulations over schools are now championing the power of school boards to buck the government. It turns out commitment to these kinds of freedoms is often issue-dependent.

Finally, the actual lawsuit: it seems to me that the Biden administration is in a fairly powerful position. A lot of disability lawyers seem to think they are on very solid legal footing. One told The Nation’s David Perry that “a mask is a ramp,” essentially making the point that the same legal authority that requires schools to have ramps for accessibility will also compel them to make sure all students are masked so that the most vulnerable stay safe. What seems clear to me in this very messy issue is that states should not be allowed to unilaterally ban mask mandates, as many have, and I’m proud to say that’s a consistent throughline in my ideology. Removing the choice from school districts to use masks or other Covid-19 mitigation measures shouldn’t be legal, probably isn’t legal, and may very well get steamrolled by the federal government soon.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Can you talk more about Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Peter Meijer (R-MI)’s trip to Afghanistan? With the findings from “the Afghanistan Papers” we know that the Pentagon has intentionally misled Congress and the Executive Branch. I feel that this trip is warranted under those circumstances yet they are catching flack from their party leaders. Why not support this effort of oversight? Isn't that the role Congress is supposed to play?

— Addison, Asheboro, North Carolina

Tangle: Just in case you missed this: Reps. Moulton and Meijer took an unauthorized trip to Afghanistan last week to see what was happening on the ground. Then they were criticized harshly and accused of distracting security and government resources from the clearly urgent evacuation efforts.

Personally, I found the trip pretty annoying as well. You are right about the Afghanistan papers and the lies that were told to all of us for years. But Congress has a pretty clear process for “fact-finding” missions like this, and given everything we were hearing from the ground it seems ludicrous that two Congressmen would drop themselves in the middle of it with no notice, organizational approval or planning. Even if they only took away one State Department official, two soldiers and one van for transportation for three hours… how many people could have been evacuated who were there at that time? One? Five? 10? Whatever that number is would have been far preferable.

So, to me, it felt like a political stunt. Both are military veterans who have been in war zones before and I’m certain they were equipped to handle the situation. But what did they tangibly gain? They came back and told us it was chaos on the ground. Great. We knew that. I get the allure of it, and I get the message they were trying to get out (“we went and saw it and now we know we need to do x, y and z”), but it struck me as very self-involved and poorly thought out, all to bring home what was information we already had from multiple sources like diplomats, soldiers, journalists and civilians on the ground.


A story that matters.

Social security will have to cut benefits by 2034 if Congress does nothing to address the program’s long-term funding shortfall, according to a new report from the Spcial Security and Medicare trustees. That so one year earlier than last year, at which point the program will only be able to pay 78 percent in promised benefits to retirees and disabled beneficiaries. The Covid-19 pandemic and economic recession are being blamed for the updated timeline. At the end of 2020, around 65 million people were receiving Social Security benefits and nearly 63 million were covered under Medicare. CNN has the story.


Numbers.

  • 15. The number of states that require wearing masks in school.
  • 9. The number of states that have attempted to ban mask mandates for schools.
  • 92%. The percentage of Democrats who support mandatory masking in schools.
  • 67%. The percentage of independents who support mandatory masking in schools.
  • 44%. The percentage of Republicans who support mandatory masking in schools.

Don’t forget.

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Have a nice day.

A wealthy tourist in Turkey has changed the life of a hotel bellboy for the good. Charles George Courtney was a regular at Korur De Lux Hotel in Kusadasi, Turkey. The British man struck up a friendship with Taskin Dasdan, who worked at the hotel as a bellboy for 31 years. When Courtney died earlier this year, Dasdan got a phone call from the United Kingdom and was informed that he had been left the majority of Courtney’s inheritance — as well as smaller amounts bequeathed to other staff -- enough money so that the bellboy would never have to work again. Irish Mirror has the story.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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