Nowhere was the Lewiston City Council’s facemask mandate more effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19 than in the community’s schools, which successfully bet on safely delivering vital in-person instruction.
The numbers tell the story.
As of Nov. 19, when the council voted 4-3 to require facemasks in public settings, 94 students and 61 staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the school year. At that time, 16 cases were listed as active — meaning the students and staffers were isolating at home. And of that, four cases were newly reported.
By then, however, the district had been operating under a two-week temporary order requiring students to wear masks in classrooms — along with other preventive measures such as social distancing, plexiglass dividers and strenuous sanitizing protocols. So the trend, which had spiked when Superintendent Bob Donaldson acted on Nov. 3 — with 39 active cases, including nine new infections — already had begun to flatten.
That said, the city’s overall mask umbrella gave an equally divided school board political cover while producing a substantial drop in COVID-19 spread in the schools. There was no post-holiday surge as feared. In the 18 weeks since the council’s order went into effect, Lewiston schools reported fewer COVID-19 cases than during the 12 weeks that preceded it.
As of Tuesday, 180 students and 115 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 since the school year began. Nine of those infections were active, including two recently reported cases.
Had the council left well enough alone, its mandate would have extended into May — giving adults, including teachers and staffers, more time to become vaccinated. The school year would have been down to its final few weeks. Warmer weather would have provided more opportunities for social distancing.
But instead, on a 4-3 vote, the city council lifted its mandate.
Among the justifications councilors gave was this self-serving gem: “I want to empower the school district to make that decision for themselves,” said Councilor Cari Miller. “Right now, they don’t have a choice. They have to have masks because of the mandate.”
So when the Lewiston School Board meets on April 12, it will become empowered to deal with the same uproar of anti-maskers that confronted the city council.
School board members will be empowered to hear how young children have a difficult time with masks.
They’ll be empowered to be told how some families would rather pull their kids out of the classroom than compel them to wear a mask.
These school trustees will be empowered to endure debates about how children don’t spread the infection or suffer its effects — while teachers and staff members have had the opportunity to become vaccinated.
They will be empowered to continue debating assertions that masks don’t work, that they’re an infringement on personal freedom and that the pandemic itself has been overblown in the name of government overreach.
And they’ll be empowered to learn once more that in the name of COVID-19 fatigue, officials in 21 states are lifting mask mandates and other restrictions.
Amid all this empowerment, perhaps someone will point out that the COVID-19 victory lap is coming prematurely. Vaccination rates are nowhere near the herd immunity the health care community says is required to stem this scourge. There are more contagious, more virulent mutations of the virus emerging, including in eastern Idaho, where per capita infections are among the worst in the U.S.
So the school board will have to weigh political fallout against public health risks.
In Miller’s world, that’s called empowerment.
In the real world, however, it goes by another name — passing the buck. — M.T.