Thursday, September 2, 2021

Masks, vaccines turn classrooms into battlegrounds -- Sept. 2, 2021 column


This Labor Day weekend, my candidate for Worker of the Year is a professor who quit.

Irwin Bernstein, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, walked off the job Aug. 24 because one of his students refused to wear a mask properly in class.

“That’s it. I’m retired,” Professor Bernstein reportedly said and left.

Bravo, Professor, for drawing your personal red line and for your long run in the classroom. Bernstein began teaching in 1968. He is 88. That’s not a typo.

He retired in 2011 but returned to teach part time. This school year he was teaching two classes.

But Bernstein has Type 2 diabetes. His age and other health problems put him at higher risk for complications of COVID-19.

It’s not too much for him and other teachers in the nation’s classrooms to expect their employers to follow the guidance of public health authorities and require masks and vaccinations.

The University System of Georgia offers vaccinations and encourages masks inside campus facilities -- but does not require them.

So, Bernstein adopted his own “no mask, no class” policy.

Two of his students missed the first day of class after having tested positive for COVID-19, the student newspaper The Red & Black reported. On the second day, 25 students in Bernstein’s seminar did wear masks, but one student refused to pull the mask over her nose, saying she had “a really hard time breathing.”

Bernstein asked her twice. An Air Force veteran, he said he risked his life in the military but wouldn’t do so during the pandemic.

Bernstein’s last stand came as the delta variant is ravaging the country.

The daily average of hospitalized COVID-19 patients topped 100,000 over the last week, the highest level since last winter, The New York Times reported.

Hospitalizations nationwide have risen 500% in the last two months, primarily in the South, and intensive care units are reaching capacity. About 1,000 people a day are dying of COVID in the United States, the most since March, the Times said.

With such devastating numbers, mask and vaccination mandates in schools and universities should be welcome.

And yet, anti-maskers and anti-vaxers, spurred by irresponsible Republican politicians, still complain that requiring a mask or vaccination is an infringement of their personal freedom and rights. Critics of mandates complain of “tyrants,” and worse.

Some flout the rules with appalling consequences. Consider a case from California the Centers for Disease Control reported this week.

In Marin County, an unvaccinated elementary school teacher removed their mask while reading aloud to the class last June and half the pupils, who were too young to be vaccinated, got COVID-19. Removing the mask was against school rules.

And yet, as students return to schools and campuses this fall, classroom conflicts are spreading.

The Republican governors of Florida and Texas have fought school districts that have imposed mask mandates. The federal Education Department is investigating whether five states that have prohibited mask mandates have violated the civil rights of disabled students.

At least 16 states have statewide school mask mandates, according to tracking by the Times. But that doesn’t always matter to misguided local officials. A rural school district in Oregon just fired its school superintendent because he followed the state guidance and required masks.

Virginia requires all students, teachers and staff in K-12 schools to wear masks indoors, even if vaccinated. Most colleges and universities in Virginia also require vaccinations and masks.

Virginia Tech disenrolled 134 students and the University of Virginia disenrolled 238 who failed to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. It’s unknown how many of these students had made other plans for the school year.

Fortunately, with full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, more employers – including governments at all levels -- are requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment, with a few exceptions.

That’s good news. Few teachers or other public employees can afford to say, “Take this job and shove it.”

Universities and schools that hold in-person classes, especially where children are too young to be vaccinated, should protect everyone involved with vaccination and mask mandates. And they should get community support when they do.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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