A recent picture of a high school hallway at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., spread like wildfire across social media last week. Six months ago, I would not have taken a second glance at this photograph. It depicted what seemed like a typical, crowded high school like countless others across the country. However, these are not typical times.
In the last five months, more than 160,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Businesses and schools across the country have been shuttered for months. When I saw the picture of these high school students packed in a hallway, with fewer than 10 students wearing a mask, I was in disbelief. I wondered how any school could allow this to happen when last week alone more than 7,500 people died.
When the superintendent of Paulding County Schools released a statement last week, I was hopeful that I would read his acknowledgment of how this image struck fear in him coupled with an announcement of new guidelines to ensure that maskless students in a crowded school hallway would not happen again. Instead, Superintendent Brian Otott addressed the difficulties of social distancing in a school of over 2,000 students while also expressing his belief that “Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.” Needless to say, I was bewildered.
And, then, instead of supporting the students who disclosed such disturbing images, the North Paulding students who shared these pictures reported being suspended for violating the school’s social-media policy—suspensions that were later reversed. And, in the days since the photographs were originally shared, at least nine positive cases have been reported at North Paulding High School, leading the superintendent to temporarily switch to remote learning.
As someone who lived in Georgia for 28 years as a student and later as a public school teacher, I know from firsthand experience how strictly schools enforce their dress codes. During my first year as a teacher, I vividly remember being forced by my administration to call and ask families to bring belts, shoes, socks, and even new pants when students were out of compliance. As a student, I personally received multiple hours of after-school detention for simply having my T-shirt untucked or not wearing my school ID. While the implementation of dress codes has certainly been controversial, if there were ever a reason to mandate some kind of a dress code to stop the spread of the coronavirus, wearing a mask should make the list. I believe mask wearing should be a part of every school’s mandatory dress code.
Racist and sexist dress-code restrictions on the lengths of skirts, ripped jeans, shirt styles, and even hairstyles are a regular occurrence in schools across the country. I am fundamentally opposed to this form of policing in schools, especially as it disproportionately impacts Black girls and boys. However, as COVID-19 continues to spread through Georgia and the rest of the nation, it is completely disingenuous to say that there is no practical way to enforce a mask mandate in schools, especially since U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines clearly state that wearing a mask can save lives.
As the country resounds with chants of “Black Lives Matter,” it is not lost on me that this global pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black communities. An April CDC study showed that 80 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Georgia were Black. An August CDC study found that Black children were five times as likely to be hospitalized than white children. Although Paulding County has a majority-white population, the Black population has recently grown to almost 22 percent, fueling concerns that absent a universal mask requirement in schools, Black men, women, and children will be the most severely affected.
To be clear, I am not advocating the same authoritarian dress-code enforcement measures that disproportionately harm Black students in our schools. Instead, I use this comparison to highlight the hypocrisy: If school leaders have historically been willing to enforce routine dress-code violations that have little to no positive impact on the learning environment, there should be no issue with implementing and enforcing a mask requirement that could quite literally save the lives of vulnerable faculty, staff, students, and their families.
I recognize that schools are under immense pressure to reopen their buildings. Countless families are struggling to manage work schedules, find adequate child care, and maintain some sense of normalcy for their families. Schools across the United States serve as hubs for social services, including health care, food distribution, and mental-health services. All of this context matters in the calculus of school reopenings. However, none of this means that educational leaders abdicate their responsibility to lead: Transformative leadership calls for bold and decisive actions that are absolutely necessary, even if they are unpopular. As districts engage in the process of reopening their schools, they must continue to remember their most sacred duty: ensuring the safety of their faculty, students, and staff.
Adequately protecting students goes further than simply hoping for the best. It means being creative, innovative, and courageous in advocating the needs of the students and the community. Rather than fall victim to the whims of political pressures, school leaders must demonstrate courageous, compassionate leadership that serves the best interest of the communities they serve, especially those of color. The people from those communities are among the most at risk of death from COVID-19. And their lives may truly depend on the courage of their school leaders.
A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2020 edition of Education Week as Mask Wearing Isn’t Unenforceable