In his wisdom, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland has decided to make wearing face masks optional for students, teachers and staff at borough public schools. Facing an onslaught of criticism last week from parents defending their freedom to decide if children should wear masks, the school board discussed, but did not vote to approve or disapprove Holland’s decision.
Lost in this discussion is a wee bit of hypocrisy. In allowing parents and students to exercise their freedom not to wear one article of clothing that helps prevent the spread of disease, schools and the school board restrict other articles of clothing.
Hurrah! Parents who object to face masks can send their children to school next week confident that their smiles will not be hindered by small pieces of cloth. No tyrannical superintendent or school board will make decisions that they think should be left up to parents.
People advocating the mandatory wearing of face masks indoors, as was done last school year, argue that masks help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They cite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that students, teachers and staff wear face masks even if fully vaccinated. Viral loads of the delta variant of the coronavirus can be high even in vaccinated people, and thus everyone can now spread the virus. Masks help keep virus-laden droplets from going beyond a person’s face.
By making face masks optional, Holland has taken away an effective tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools. If we had achieved herd immunity on the peninsula, this might not be a concern, but with full vaccination rates on the southern peninsula at less than 50%, we’re not anywhere close to that. Children under 12 — those in elementary school — remain vulnerable since the vaccines have not yet been approved for them.
Fear not, though. The school district still protects students from these perceived dangers:
• Bare flesh and revealing clothing. Worried that your child might be distracted by exposed flesh on the human body? For example, the Homer High School student handbook bans the following: “Any shirt or top that ends above the waistband; shirts with low necklines; clothing worn so as to expose undergarments.” Bare shoulders are allowed “as long as all undergarments are covered, and all straps must be at least 1 inch in width.” Also, “Any skirts, shorts or dresses worn without opaque tights or leggings underneath must be no shorter than 3 inches above the knee.”
• Bare feet. “Shoes must be worn at all times in the school.”
• The words “beer,” “Salty Dawg Saloon,” “cannabis” and “cocaine” are prohibited — that is, if they are on “clothing that advertises or suggests the use of alcoholic beverages, illegal drugs, or tobacco.”
• Swear words or obscene messages on clothing.
• Political expression. Homer Flex School prohibits “clothing that is a distraction to the educational environment.” That includes apparel with “political messaging.”
Similar dress codes can be found at Homer Middle School and other schools.
Parents, teachers and administrators might have good reasons why these rules make sense. Wearing shoes has a public health benefit: It keeps children from cutting their feet on playgrounds, for example. Parents might ask why schools want to protect feet but not lungs, though.
School officials might argue that boys and girls should dress modestly. They might argue the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles and discouraging the use of alcohol, cannabis and tobacco by children.
But allowing students to expose one part of the body — the mouth and nose — while restricting the exposure of other parts of a body suggests a new test for the validity of the dress code rules.
This is the test:
• If a belly button is exposed, will someone be hospitalized?
• If 3.5 inches of flesh above the knee is seen, will someone go on a ventilator?
• If someone sees the words “Uncle Herb’s,” “Cosmic Cannabis,” “Grace Ridge Brewing” and “Homer Brewery” on a T-shirt, will they die?
If the school district cannot say “yes,” then given that they allow exposure of the face and nose indoors during a pandemic, by an extension of this logic they cannot restrict exposure of other parts of the body.
The hypocrisy of Holland and the school district is clear.
In Kenai Peninsula public schools, officials do not want to use all the tools available to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but they will keep students from seeing the word “Corona,” the beer.
– Michael Armstrong, Editor