Coronavirus Chronicles

Washington's Mask Debate Heats Up

Comments by state officials yesterday signal that this isn’t just going to be an east-west tiff.

By Benjamin Cassidy February 10, 2022

State schools superintendent Chris Reykdal stands with a microphone.

Chris Reykdal, taking a stand.

Raise your hand if you remembered there was an outdoor mask mandate in this state.

Yesterday, governor Jay Inslee took the mic yet again during the coronavirus pandemic and lifted Washington’s requirement to don facial protection outdoors as of February 18, which is to say he reminded many observers that this was even still a thing. The restriction only applied to gatherings of 500 or more people. How many of those have you been to recently?

More notably, Inslee did not announce an end date for the state’s indoor mask mandate, as places like California and Oregon have within the past few days. The governor says cases and hospitalizations remain too high across the state to justify it. Even though the rate of new cases has dropped significantly, the omicron wave’s toll on our health is still high; a precipitous decline from a peak does not mean you’re in a valley yet. Still, Inslee says he’ll likely get around to announcing changes to indoor requirements next week.

State schools superintendent Chris Reykdal would like one bit of clarity much sooner. Yesterday he asked the governor to remove the statewide mask mandate for students. Reykdal would like to see the decision moved from the state level to local health departments. “With high immunity rates and our ability to carry out rapid antigen tests with nearly every school district participating in our state’s COVID-19 testing program,” he said in a statement, “the time is now to rebalance the health and educational benefits of masking in our schools.”

The head of the state’s teachers union noted that discarding masks could lead to more staffing shortages and further upend classes. But Reykdal says that masks themselves have “impacted the learning environment.” Others have wondered about how obscuring a face can affect a child’s social development.

Like with long Covid, the research in this area is well underway but also far from arriving at consensus. It takes time to peer review and replicate studies. Long Covid, and child development, are by definition things to be monitored over extended periods.

Though King County may be cool with a directive to keep masking at grocery stores and offices for a little while longer, the debate around donning facial coverings in class promises to be hot. Some might say the futility of cloth masks during the omicron wave should lead schools to ditch face coverings altogether. Others may stress that the unknowns of long Covid require every last level of protection.

One thing’s for certain: Parents, administrators, and health officials will be left to weigh evolving and incomplete information as they debate our children’s immediate and long-term future, also known as all of our futures. What could go wrong?

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