No, Republican Governors Are Not ‘Banning Masks in Classrooms’

Students raise their hands to answer a question at Kratzer Elementary School in Allentown, Pa., April 13, 2021. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

Leaving the decision to mask children up to their parents rather than school boards is not a ‘ban.’

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Leaving the decision to mask children up to their parents rather than school boards is not a ‘ban.’

I n a piece titled “The Biden administration will use a federal civil rights office to deter states from banning masks in classrooms,” the New York Times reports that:

President Biden, escalating his fight with Republican governors who are blocking local school districts from requiring masks to protect against the coronavirus, said Wednesday that his Education Department would use its broad powers including taking possible legal action to deter states from barring universal masking in classrooms.

As careful readers will observe, both the headline and the lead paragraph within this story contain fatally misleading descriptions of what the “Republican governors” in question have actually done. The states on the Timess naughty list are Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Florida, and Texas. But not one of those states has “banned masks in classrooms,” as the Times’s headline erroneously claims. Rather, they have all elected to leave the decision to mask children with parents rather than school boards. When, as he did during his speech yesterday, President Biden claimed that “some politicians” have taken “power away from local educators by banning masks in schools,” he was lying. As America’s self-appointed “newspaper of record,” the Times had a responsibility to note that.

The difference between a state’s “banning masks in classrooms” and a state’s declining to set a statewide policy is, of course, enormous. As I suggested last week when examining Florida’s school-masking policies, it is perfectly reasonable for critics to contend that control over such policies should have been given to school boards rather than parents, but it is not at all reasonable for critics to contend that choosing parents over school boards represents some high-handed exercise of power that is, in and of itself, akin to a “ban” or a “mandate”:

One cannot credibly argue that Florida has “restricted” choice. It hasn’t. It has allocated choice. Florida had three options. The first was to set the substantive policy for every school and every student (no masks or mandatory masks). The second was to allow each school to make that determination. The third was to let parents decide. By going with the third option, Florida handed the decision to the smallest possible unit: the individual.

Which is why, throughout their piece, the Times’s authors tie themselves into knots trying to make the lack of mandates in either direction sound like a dastardly and authoritarian encumbrance. Governors, they write, are “issuing executive orders banning mask mandates”; moving to “block universal masking”; “prohibiting mask mandates”; and “barring universal masking in classrooms.”

Or, put another way: Those governors have declined to issue mandates.

The obvious irony here is that the president is the one attempting to impose a one-size-fits-all rule from on high, not the governors who have annoyed him. As the Times notes, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and the Biden administration are now seeking to use a preposterous reading of civil-rights law in order to force every school district in the country to institute universal mask mandates:

I’ve heard those parents saying, ‘Miguel, because of these policies, my child cannot access their school, I would be putting them in harm’s way,’” Dr. Cardona said. “And to me, that goes against a free, appropriate public education. That goes against the fundamental beliefs of educators across the country to protect their students and provide a well-rounded education.”

Neither Joe Biden nor Secretary Cardona has said explicitly that the administration’s goal is to achieve ubiquitous masking in schools. Nor, for that matter, has the Times, which allows only that “prohibiting mask mandates could deny students’ right to education by putting them in harm’s way in school.” And yet the argument that the administration has outlined must lead inexorably to that outcome. If, as Secretary Cardona claims, the mere existence of unmasked children in the classroom is depriving others of “access” — and if that lack of access represents a civil-rights violation, as he proposes — then all 50 states must surely be obliged to impose mask mandates. It cannot logically be the case that unmasked children are fine if they are the product of a decision made by a school board that is acting under the state’s authority, but present a civil-rights challenge if they are the product of a decision the state has left to their parents. That, to use the technical term, would be bananas.

Structural questions notwithstanding, it is worth remembering that the on-the-merits case for mandating masks in schools is in fact extremely weak. It is certainly not strong enough to have warranted this absurd national fight. Indeed, this is precisely the sort of unanswerable, judgment-heavy, tradeoff-laden question that tends to be best resolved at the state level, at the school board-level, or at the individual level, rather than by the Civil Rights Division of the federal Department of Education. In Britain and across the European Union, no child under the age of twelve is obliged to wear a mask, on the eminently sensible grounds that masks are ineffective and may adversely affect children’s development. If certain Americans disagree with those conclusions and wish to take a belt-and-suspenders approach to their own children instead, that is fine. It’s a free country. But, really, there’s no need to make a federal case out of it.

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