Indian-American parents underscore importance of mask mandates and vaccines for schools

In response to Virginia Gov. Youngkin’s executive order, which went into effect on Jan. 24th, Virginia parents and their children gather to demonstrate support for continuing mask mandates in schools. PHOTO: Loudoun Parents for Evidence Based Safe Schooling

Aruna Kotha, an Indian-American mother of two young children in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, and a docent at her kids’ school, thought schools would go back to virtual learning after the holiday season given the increasing threat posed by the Omicron variant. To her dismay, schools reopened and required all kids to attend in-person classes. With no available alternatives, she has been sending her kids to school every day but lives in a heightened sense of concern when they return with cold or cough.

According to Kotha, given the rapid spread of Omicron in Massachusetts, a number of teachers tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of year, which has led to many classes being taught by substitute teachers. Even though, both her kids are vaccinated and wear masks as mandated by their school, she is still worried since their classmates are testing COVID positive. She explained even securing timely appointments, and obtaining test results are difficult since hospitals are functioning at capacity.  Frustrated with the current situation and unsure about how long the virus will survive, she added, “even though I believe in masks, I don’t want kids to experience any long-term repercussions due to mask wearing. To end this, we need everyone to get vaccinated, boosted, wear masks, and follow all safety protocols. We need to be more responsible in order to protect our kids.”

Kotha is not alone; a majority of parents of school going kids across the US are worried as Omicron is proving to be highly transmissible and hospitalization rates are clearly on the rise even among children. Given the alarming situation, these parents believe only vaccinations and face masks can safeguard their kids at schools and in their communities. These parents also concur in-person attendance is necessary to develop social and emotional growth.

At a time when Virginia is experiencing unprecedented COVID surge and hospitals are at crisis level, on January 15th, Glenn Youngkin, the newly elected Governor of Virginia, issued an executive order ending existing mask mandates in Virginia public schools effective January 24th. On day one, after assuming official duties, Youngkin, signed 11 executive actions including nine executive orders and two executive directives. Executive order No. 2, titled: ‘Reaffirming the Rights of Parents in The Upbringing, Education, and Care Of Their Children,’ addresses the Governor’s school-based mask mandates. The order stated, among other things, “recent government orders requiring virtually every child in Virginia wear masks virtually every moment they are in school have proven ineffective and impractical. They have also failed to keep up with rapidly changing scientific information,” adding “the parents of any child enrolled in an elementary or secondary school or a school based early childcare and educational program may elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program.”

Reacting sharply to the Governor’s new executive order, major public school districts in Virginia issued statements that there would be no change to their existing mask mandates, and they would continue to follow recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Several school districts have also sued the Governor arguing that the executive order is in direct violation of state law. Even though parents and students have ‘breathed’ a huge sigh of relief for now, the executive order has caused a lot of angst among parents as kids under five years of age still don’t have access to a  vaccine, and those between 5-12 years don’t have a booster yet.

Indian-American parents in Virginia continue to underscore the importance of masks and commended schools districts that are with CDC guidelines. Regardless of vaccination status, CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all staff, teachers, students, and visitors to K-12 schools. According to CDC, in the US, there are about 28 million children who fall in the of 5-11 year age group old, and roughly 2 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported within this group to-date. Recent CDC data indicate that while 27 percent have received at least one dose, only 18 percent have taken both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Reacting to the VA Governor’s decision, Dr. Mamatha Prabhakar, a physician, and mother of two kids in Loudoun County, VA, told News India Times that the new executive order to lift the mask mandate in schools is highly disturbing. She said, “there is enough data to support that masking will reduce COVID-19 exposure, and lifting this mandate means more exposure and illness. It is unfortunate to see these types of decisions being politicized.  For parents like me in healthcare, it also means increased personal exposure risk, need for more frequent quarantines which in turn can create shortages of healthcare providers in the community. I think it is too early to talk about schools going without masks.”

Pratiksha Mande, a mother of a seven-year old student, and volunteer at her daughter’s school at Loudoun County, VA, was relieved that her school district elected to follow CDC guidelines. She said, “we cannot risk our children being in a setting with unmasked people. Also, by masking we protect immunocompromised teachers and students.”

Dr. Aman Sabharwal, a dentist, and father of four young children from Fairfax County, VA, stated, “I am very pleased with the decision of the school district to maintain the existing mask mandate. Given the highly transmissible nature of the Omicron variant it makes perfect sense to stay the course. If we want schools to remain open then we have to do everything we can to avoid another outbreak.”

Virginia Gov. Youngkin signs executive orders on day one in Richmond, VA. PHOTO:

As someone who spends most of her time with kids, Komala Allam, a Montessori pre-school teacher, in Fairfax County, and mother of two children, said, “I firmly believe that vaccination accompanied by masks play an important role in lowering the possibility of COVID-19 infections. The existing mask mandate not only keeps students and faculty safe at school, but also their families at home.”

Virginians definitely have a legitimate reason for having an adverse reaction to this order given that their neighbors in the District of Columbia (DC), and Maryland have tighter restrictions on masking and testing, and enforce indoor masking in public schools. Earlier this month, Maryland Governor, Larry Hogan, announced that Maryland will distribute 20 million free N95 and KN95 masks to its residents, and DC provided free rapid antigen tests to all students and required a proof of negative test results prior to re-opening schools on January 5th. Sabina Malkani, a mother and an elementary school teacher in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), explained, “masks are worn by everyone in DCPS. Asymptomatic testing has been in place for months and students who test positive are quarantined. This is the only way to keep teachers and students safe.”

Similar to Virginia, Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis issued an executive order last May barring local governments and school systems from imposing COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates. The decision created a huge public outcry among residents of the state. CEO and Founder of Smart-Infrastructure Group in Florida, and father of three kids, Achyut Allady, said, “masks should be treated as one of the solutions for slowing the spread of COVID-19, and need to be mandated for a certain timeline in public places and enclosed locations. Specifically in schools masks should be mandated as kids are easily susceptible to infections. Kids follow rules. Despite being vaccinated, my family members and I got tested positive for COVID twice. I feel vaccination didn’t protect us from the disease, but definitely helped us manage the disease by preventing hospitalization.”

Another resident of Florida, Esther Pereira, a senior healthcare executive, and mother of two small kids, said, “it is fine for people to have their own choice about masks. But, my kids wear masks and I have explained to them about proper safety protocols. They wear masks when they are indoors and around other people.” Her husband, Dr. S. Pereira, an ER doctor, said, “Omicron is the honey badger of COVID. It doesn’t care if you’ve been vaccinated, boosted, or infected before. It is highly infectious but not very pathogenic. Other than a total lockdown there is no escape from it. But, that probably would not work either due to high number of asymptomatic infections. Masks may offer a minimal protection and contain the spread provided kids wear properly fitted masks.” Both, support in-person classes at schools.

Unlike Florida, New Jersey has strict mask mandates in schools. Dr. Hetal Patel, a pharmacist and informaticist at Atlantic Health System in New Jersey, and mother of two kids, said she feels comfortable about COVID protocols in her kids’ schools. “After the holidays, my kids’ school decided to go remote learning for ten days due to an uptick in COVID cases. I think that was the right decision considering the health and safety of the students, teachers and staff. In New Jersey, students of all ages are required to wear a mask during their time in school, except during snack and lunch breaks. This makes me feel comfortable that my children are safe with all the proper COVID protocols mandated in the school.” Dr. Patel added that, “I am a big supporter of in-person learning since students of all ages need that social and emotional interaction with other students that only the school can offer. I have observed my kids’ increased level of concentration, focus, and drive when they receive personalized learning experience. It has helped them with their physical and mental health during this pandemic.”

Supporting mask mandates in schools, Gayathri Jith, a senior Healthcare Executive in Washington State, and mother of three kids, said, “I really think people need to mask up, get vaccinated, and need to get boosted. I have a kid who is eligible for vaccines and vaccinated, and two kids who are not eligible for vaccines based on their age. The best we can do to protect the younger ones is to get everybody else in the community vaccinated to prevent the spread of the virus. We know this is not a cold.  At the end of the day, we don’t know the long term impacts of COVID. This could have an impact on heart disease, diabetes, and other long-term health complications.”




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