If only Republican lawmakers really cared about our children as much as they claim to

Published February 24, 2022

By Rob Schofield

To listen to North Carolina Republican lawmakers last week as they advanced a bill to end school mask requirements, it was hard not to be struck and even impressed by the passion that some of them displayed in expressing their love and concern for the state’s children.

Multiple lawmakers talked of the terrible effects that the pandemic have had on children and the desperate need to allow them to get back to “normal” by passing a bill they’ve dubbed the “Free the Smiles Act” that would bar local school districts from requiring masks in schools.

Rep. David Willis, a Republican representative from Union County, for example, spoke of the negative mental health impact the pandemic has had on children. Rep. David Rogers (R-Rutherford) spoke passionately about the roadblocks the pandemic is causing for his children, who are in the fourth and eighth grade. Rep. Kristin Baker, (R-Cabarrus) talked of the deeply disturbing data regarding child and adolescent suicide, homicide rates and emergency room visits that have occurred during the pandemic.

As with so many of the grievances and demands that conservatives have voiced throughout the pandemic, however, one also couldn’t help but spy a pair of truck-size holes in the arguments the legislators voiced.

First was the simplistic notion that the problems they identified can be attributed to the wearing of masks.

Yes, masks can be a real pain. Like bicycle helmets and seat belts, they can be uncomfortable and imperfect. And it’s obvious that they hinder communication and human connections. We all long for the moment when the need for them will be greatly reduced.

But to attribute the many hugely negative impacts of the pandemic on kids – particularly the spike in mental health crises – to mask wearing is the height of simplistic sophistry. The pandemic has killed or sickened tens of millions of people worldwide. For a time, it sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin. Thousands of businesses and jobs ceased to exist. Thousands of teachers have quit the profession. Scores of basic patterns of societal interaction have been disrupted. The lives of hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers has been made a living hell.

Now add to this that nearly all of us – children included – have been bombarded with countless images of this horror while humanity faces a dire and existential environmental crisis, and it’s hard to say what’s more amazing: a) that more people haven’t suffered mental health emergencies, or b) that supposedly responsible elected officials think that wearing a mask for a few hours per day is at the root of the problem.

All that said, what’s really most striking about the politicians expressing their supposed deep concern for kids is their utter obliviousness to the more significant ways in which education disinvestments of the past decade have harmed our children.

Think of it this way: If the choice were between sending one’s child, masked, to a bright, warm, modern school building staffed by a large team of happy, diverse, well-compensated, adequately supported teachers, backed by a full complement of administrators, nurses, counselors and psychologists — or sending one’s child unmasked to the kind of underfunded and overwhelmed schools that have become the norm in so many parts of our state in 2022, who in their right mind would choose the latter?

For decades, Republicans and their conservative think tank allies (many of whom have never met a military appropriation or highway project that wasn’t supposedly vital to the nation’s well-being) have assured us that “throwing money” at education is never the answer to what ails our schools.

As the recent Leandro court order spells out in great and compelling detail, however, the truth is, money makes an enormous difference.

Look at the recently completed Winter Olympics or any number of other global sporting competitions, where it’s beyond question that the countries that invest the most – particularly in women’s sports, where the gap between nations is the greatest – fare the best. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that helped assure improved (if not yet totally equal) funding for women’s sports in the U.S., and the payoff for American women athletes has been huge and obvious – especially in sports long dominated by men like hockey and soccer.

Can anyone really imagine that those victories would have come in the same volume without the investments the nation made in coaches, trainers, sports medicine, facilities, travel, equipment and the like?

And so it is, obviously, in the world of K-12 education – or for that matter, pre-K or advanced engineering.

In short, Republican lawmakers and their conservative allies may be sincere in their belief that schoolchildren are somehow being grievously harmed by public health directives to mask up during a global pandemic, but it would be a lot easier to take them seriously if they brought the same level of passion to supporting all the other essential factors that indisputably go into providing children with a sound basic education.