Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Unmasked Faces on L.A. School Campuses Is a Minor Miracle

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This week, as I picked up and dropped off my kids at school, I saw something amazing: faces.

These were full faces, complete with runny noses and braces-filled mouths. These were unmasked faces, smiling and happily chatting. They were just like the uncovered faces you saw everywhere at the Super Bowl.

Many Angelenos have returned to something resembling “normalcy,” and others act as if the pandemic is behind us (a few operate like it never existed). And most kids are back to breathing all over each other when playing sports, at after-school hangouts and birthday parties, and during sleepovers.

Still, it is hard to overstate how powerful it is to see maskless faces on school campuses. New rules took effect on Tuesday.

Sure, this is not the “end” of anything. Kids at Los Angeles Unified School District institutions are only allowed to drop the masks outdoors, following a directive last week from new Supt. Alberto Carvalho (a number of other school districts and private schools in the region have similar protocols). It is not clear if and when school leaders could give a green light to ditch the face coverings.

The requirements continue, too. Kids still have to take regular coronavirus tests, enduring what our family calls the “stick up the nose ride.” Children or parents must complete a form each morning verifying that they don’t have symptoms and have not been in close contact with anyone who is COVID-positive.

Even with those caveats, incremental steps matter. And if you have suffered through seeing kids suffer, then watching them step foot on school grounds without first being required to strap on a KN95 or a blue surgical mask sparks a sigh of relief.

The pandemic has been hell on everyone, and complaints about masking up at school are nothing compared to the pain endured by the families of the 30,519 people (as of Thursday) who have died of COVID-19 in L.A. County, or the untold thousands who have suffered serious and ongoing health impacts. The economic ravages of the virus have caused people to lose their job, and in some cases their home or business. On that scale, covering your face while in geometry class or social studies is little league.

While most kids have made it through the pandemic physically unscathed, too many educations and routines have been upended, and the challenges are magnified for the approximately 80 percent of LAUSD families that live below the poverty line. Our household was fortunate to have stable Internet access and reliable computers during the hellish year-plus of Zoom schooling. But even with the LAUSD providing connected devices and hotspots to every kid who needed them—one of many groundbreaking moves propelled by former Supt. Austin Beutner—too many households saw learning hampered and once-sunny kids who fell into depression or educational disinterest. There were copious stories detailing the number of students who, during the “distance learning” period, were failing classes or simply not logging on.

If you are a parent, life has been varying degrees of upside down since most campuses shut down following classes on Friday, March 13, 2020 (heck yeah I remember the exact day). Even moments of progress could present boulders that were not worth climbing—LAUSD elementary schools allowed kids to return to campus last April, but in the effort to limit coronavirus transmission, older students who came back had to sit in a single room all day with headphones on and still attend their classes online. Our middle schooler skipped “Zoom in a room” and stayed home.

Given that history, starting the academic year last fall with everyone back on campus, and most people vaccinated, was a landmark achievement. Again, give credit to Beutner (who stepped down last June); LAUSD buildings had new top-shelf air filtration systems and hand sanitizing stations. The weekly free testing program, something few other public school districts had in place, worked shockingly well and provided results usually within 24 hours. Bunches of kids caught the virus during the Omicron surge in January, but as of Tuesday, the LAUSD positivity rate had dwindled to 0.84 percent, less than half the overall county rate of 1.9 percent.

Through all the changes, one thing had remained constant: masking. When we dropped our kids at school in the morning, it was with half their face covered. When we saw them at the end of the day, it was just their eyes at first.

Now things are different. But even this comes with hiccups—some kids have been buffeted by so many COVID-safety warnings over nearly two years that they are reticent to unmask, even if it’s allowed. This darn virus has a long tail.

But knowing that your child can greet a friend, that they can talk and stroll from one period to the next or laugh after school without covering their face, is a game changer.

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