Making masks optional in Akron schools was the right decision

Like a lot of children, my 9-year-old daughter, Lyra, relies on routine to make life predictable and easier for us both. Conversely, changes in her routines can understandably take a minute.  

When I tell Lyra on the first warm spring morning that she needn’t put on a hat, scarf and mittens when getting ready for her school bus, she does anyway. I chalk it into the “pick your battles” category and she heads out overly dressed the first weeks of the season. 

Lyra and her dog Otto after sledding on March 12. Three days later it was 70 degrees in Akron.

Knowing this, I was surprised last Monday when I told Lyra she no longer needed to wear a mask to school. She made no attempt to grab a fresh one from the basket where I’ve stored them for nearly two years. 

Last August I wrote a column supporting Akron Public Schools’ decision to mandate masks when the buildings reopened for the 2021-2022 school year. At the time, COVID’s delta variant was engulfing Summit County where many of the school districts that initially did not require masks soon returned to remote learning due to significant outbreaks. 

In spite of my family’s best efforts to support Lyra’s remote learning during the full year APS’ buildings remained closed, her education stalled. Thus, my biggest fear this school year was a return, even temporarily, to online instruction. 

Now, seven months later, we must ask: Do the risks of contracting COVID (including hospitalization and death) remain greater than the educational risks associated with remaining masked? When can we reasonably, as we eventually must, choose to end mask mandates? 

One of the courses I teach this semester at the University of Akron is rhetoric. I tell my second-semester freshmen in this course that it is like a microcosm of college in which they will develop critical thinking skills. They learn how to find reliable data from credible sources, which they must read more closely than they are used to in order to analyze the effectiveness of each piece’s arguments. 

Rhetoric students also come to recognize fallacious arguments such as a red herring (Before allowing ice fishing shanties, we must first consider if they’ll increase prostitution) or an ad hominem (While Michael Cohen’s testimony to the Senate was impossible to disprove, we shouldn’t listen to him because he’s a confessed slime-ball).  

Whenever I teach this course, I assign articles on current events for rhetorical analysis. Last month, my students read multiple op-eds and one New York Times newsletter on when school mask mandates should end. 

The difficulty in determining a specific date to end mask mandates, which must take into account many variables that change daily, was ideal precisely because there is no one-date-is-perfect-everywhere solution.  

Here’s what we learned: Each new variant of a virus quickly supplants the previous one and typically successive generations of any virus are more transmissible but also less harmful than earlier ones. Which is to say, we are quickly getting to the same territory with COVID as the annual flu. 

Furthermore, there is evidence that masks impede education. Of course they do. The decibels at which I lecture from behind a mask are just shy of screaming. Beyond making instruction difficult, masks also hinder social connectivity. Younger students are reportedly taking months instead of the usual weeks to make new friends when masked. 

Politically, at least two extreme camps exist on masking. One is the camp that believes all masking was always pointless. The other holds that we should wear masks until the risk of contracting COVID is zero. As with most binary approaches, both are overly simplistic. 

Now that children ages 5 and up can be vaccinated, now that the omicron contraction rate has peaked and, as with previous variants, dramatically fallen and given that future variants will most likely continue to be milder than those that have come before, it is time to end mandatory masking where it makes sense. 

Hospitals and medical offices will understandably continue requiring masks longer than stores and schools do because people who are medically compromised or fragile are more likely to be in medical facilities. 

Last summer, after vaccines were available and COVID rates subsequently dropped, many believed we were done with masking. Then the delta variant debuted in America. That’s when I pitched our cloth masks for disposables, mostly for the sake of ease, but also because they had proved to be more effective. 

I heartily pray this spring is the real end of the pandemic as we’ve known it for the past two years. 

Akron Public Schools surveyed its families in the weeks before revisiting the district’s mask mandate. As a parent of a child in the district, I took the survey and answered yes, it is time to make masks optional in our city’s schools. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 20, 2022.


Global power and the Ukrainian fulcrum

Shortly after I moved to Cleveland in 2000, I became friends with Alla, a Ukrainian woman in her late 20s whose son was the same age as one of mine. 

In her small house, the high shine of the wood floors made the old cliche of eating off them seem reasonable. Though normally soft-spoken and reticent, when Alla strapped on her accordion she embodied energetic merriment, transforming her tiny living room into a dance hall for our combined four boys who pirouetted and jumped to her music. 

Alla immigrated to the United States with her family when she was a girl and a few years later her father died of brain cancer. I asked if she thought it was due to radiation exposure from the Chernobyl disaster. She said no, but who would want to live with that specter and what else it might bring? 

A year after we’d become friends, Alla lent me a slim book about the Holodomor, or Great Famine. In 1929, Soviet leader Josef Stalin collectivized agriculture in Ukraine, confiscating farms and homes. Production dropped, unrest grew and Stalin, rather than fixing the problem he’d caused, brutally doubled down and confiscated food supplies. 

Between 1931 to 1934, nearly 4 million Ukrainians died because of Stalin’s genocidal famine. At the same time, the Soviets worked to dismantle the Ukrainian language, culture and religion in an attempt to Russify the nation. Many who resisted were executed or sent to the Gulag (forced labor camps). 

Filled with firsthand accounts of the Holomodor, I found my friend’s book hard to read to the end, which is why I did. Twenty years later, I remain haunted by one particular victim: a woman found dead with her infant at her breast where it suckled in vain before also dying. 

Alla, whose parents were born more than a decade after the Holomodor, carried her people’s collective memory of what Soviet occupation had wrought and wanted others to know too. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the first time the world as I knew it changed. The second time came 10 years later when terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center towers. The third is the current pandemic. 

Now the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia has begotten a fourth global watershed moment in 30 years. The geopolitical future of the world is on a fulcrum and what happens in Ukraine will decide which way it tips — toward democracy or authoritarianism. 

As Russia amassed a warmongering number of troops and armaments along its border with Ukraine in the first weeks of 2022, experts equivocated whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade a sovereign nation without provocation. 

Of those experts, Alexander Vindman, the former director for European affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, who, like Alla, immigrated from Ukraine to the United States with his family as a child, has proved most prescient. The transcript of his Jan. 10 interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly reads like the playbook for Russia’s invasion and the global response. 

I’m not alone in lately recalling author William Faulkner’s words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

To know Ukrainian history is to know Ukrainians will fight any invasion and attempted occupation mightily and indefinitely. Ukrainians are not Russians. Ukraine is a sovereign nation for which the Russian government has no credible reason to invade, bomb and occupy. Large numbers of Russian citizens, who have risked imprisonment to protest Putin’s war, agree. 

After I moved to Akron in 2003, I saw Alla less frequently. When we last spoke on the phone in 2009, her second son was a toddler and she’d recently given birth to a daughter. She always had wanted a large family and I was happy for her. 

Alla told me that, like her father, her sister had died of brain cancer since we’d last talked and that she, too, had had a tumor removed from her brain, but assured me she was fully recovered. We talked easily for an hour, mostly about our children, before hanging up. 

When I called her cellphone several months later, her husband answered. He was disconcerted when I asked for Alla. She and her daughter had both died — Alla from cancer, the baby from complications of the treatment. 

Instantly I realized that Alla’s call, conversational and upbeat, had been a farewell. Her quiet, determined bravery in the face of death now seems essentially Ukrainian. Ukrainian bravery, on full display in the face of Putin’s orders to take their country no matter the cost of human life, is humbling. 

Just as COVID went from a distant news story to a pandemic that upended the world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed the world order quite suddenly in a seminal situation. 

To Ukraine, its people, and the future of democracy, I say Солідарність, or solidarity. In this moment, Ukrainians are the vanguard protecting the free world. They deserve the full support not just of NATO allies, but all democratic nations. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 6, 2022.