Mask requirement good for schools, public

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Baldwin County’s school year ended on a note of optimism. Crowds could once again fill stadium seats to watch their loved ones graduate. The year before, masked graduates had been socially spaced across the football field. In 2021, masks were a rarely used option. With vaccines available, it seemed that everyone was putting COVID-19 behind them. Less than three months later, however, the world has changed again. No one thought when the last class bell rang in May that students would return in August again being required to wear masks. Over the summer, COVID-19 cases have climbed. Hospitals, locally and across the country, are again filled with patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone, including people who are vaccinated, go back to wearing masks indoors. The Alabama Department of Public Health also stated that universal masking, spacing and vaccinations for students old enough to receive vaccines, are the best practice to slow the spread of COVID-19 in a community. In July, Baldwin County school system officials said that masks would be recommended, but not required when the new academic year began. On July 26, Superintendent of Education Eddie Tyler said that masks will be required for students older than second-grade level and all adults on school campuses. This was a difficult decision. Mask mandates are unpopular with many. Hours after Tyler made his announcement, parents and children came to a Baldwin County Board of Education work session to protest the requirement. The easy choice would have been to stand by one’s earlier statement, recommending, but not requiring, masks. What is not easy is for someone in the public eye to reverse a public statement within a few days. It was not an easy choice, but it was the best choice. Parents should decide what is best for their children. However, the school system is responsible for keeping all children in its care from coming to harm. With a highly contagious and dangerous disease, the actions concerning one child will affect many children. Everyone has rights, but a basic tenet of rights is that they do not give one the right to injure others. A man’s right to swing his fist stops at someone else’s nose. As Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes said more than a century ago, “free speech would not protect a man from falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing panic.” Our freedoms do not include the right to infect others when that could be avoided. Masks do protect people. They are not perfect, but they do reduce the spread of COVID-19. The only way to end the need for precautions is to do all we can to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases. This includes vaccinations. While some have questioned the need for the shots or their safety, the record is clear. Vaccines are safe and they do reduce the chance of infection and the chance that, if infected, the disease will not be as severe. More than 25,000 Baldwin Countians have contracted COVID-19. Of those, 329 have died. More than 1,100 positive COVID-19 cases have been reported in Baldwin in the last week. This is not over. No one likes masks, but we cannot pretend that the need for them has passed.