Seven school districts in Virginia have sued  Gov. Glenn Youngkin following his executive order banning mask mandates in the state. The school districts argue that this act endangers the lives of students and teachers alike. Over the past two years there has been strife amongst our education and governmental systems as both parties attempt to find a balance between high quality education and safety. How is the recent surge in COVID-19 cases impacting educators and students? What is at stake when teachers don’t feel safe in the workplace? What actions does our own University administration need to take in order to make sure that faculty feel heard and seen?

Luca Swinford '22

Mask mandates — like the ones Gov. Glenn Youngkin is banning in Virginia — are essential for protecting all members of a community, especially the more vulnerable members. For example, disabled people are at increased risk of not only getting COVID-19 but also of being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. Put simply, when mask mandates are banned, lives are at stake, especially for both disabled students and teachers. Mask mandates help protect disabled students and teachers so they can live, work, and know that their health is prioritized by their community. Gov. Glenn Youngkin is sending a clear message that the lives of disabled students and teachers are not a priority. Politicians, universities, and other leaders and institutions must stop making decisions based on unsound political interests and instead commit to public health so that more people do not lose their lives to COVID-19. 

Prof. Levenson (EDU)

Gov. Youngkin banned mask mandates to appeal to those in his base who are anti-vaccine and anti-mask. After all, he could have enabled individual districts to decide whether to have a mask mandate. (Youngkin also instituted a tip line where parents can complain about educators teaching content they don't like.) Why are 58 Virginia school districts challenging this anti-mask mandate in court?  They are advocating for their teachers and students who are immuno-compromised or vulnerable to catching the virus. (Education Week reports that as of Sept. 1, 2021, 1,045 US educators had died from COVID-19.)  Does this mean that students should be forced to wear masks forever? We know that masks are part of an effective strategy combining vaccinations, masks, and testing which is working at Brandeis. But as this pandemic seems to stretch on forever, let's research what occurs when there are thoughtful options such as Massachusetts enabling K-12 schools to make masks optional where 80% or more of their students are vaccinated. 

Prof. Levenson is professor of the practice emerita of education.

Prof. Hassenfeld (EDU)

Along with its dire public health impacts, COVID-19 has also caused an educational crisis.  Never before in American history have schools been so disrupted for so long.  The extent of the impacts on our children — both academic achievement and mental health — are only beginning to be understood. Unfortunately, COVID-19 became deeply politicized and schools turned into sites for partisan conflict. We know that widespread mask use reduces the spread of disease, and from that perspective, should have been quickly and widely adopted by all those who hoped to keep schools open. At the same time, we have learned that social distancing and indoor air quality also make an important difference in reducing transmission. But there are wide disparities in the resources available to schools to make sure that schools could be reopened safely. Many teachers were asked to return to work in settings where their classrooms lacked windows that opened or running water to encourage hand hygiene. The pandemic should shine a bright light on the deep inequities that persist in our public education system and the need for major investment in the infrastructure of schools.  

Prof. Hassenfeld is an assistant professor of Jewish education. 

Rachel Kramer Theodorou (EDU)

I think about this topic often given my many vantage points as a parent of school age kids, spouse of a 4th grade teacher, former K-12 teacher, and a Brandeis professor sending student teachers daily into classrooms. None of us love masks; they erase our human ability to read feelings from facial expressions, muffle voices hopeful of sharing ideas, and cause near claustrophobia from wearing them 6+ hours/day.  But it’s not just the masks that tire teachers — it’s the perpetual lack of respect for the complexity of teaching that must be addressed.  Lawmakers and the media need to live a day (weeks, really) in our shoes to experience the myriad of intellectually- and emotionally-charged dilemmas we address with every child, text, assignment, and activity. Just as public health officials pooled knowledge, resources and perspectives to deal with this pandemic stage by stage, we must do the same to address challenges facing in person teaching. Teachers have done ‘virtual backflips’ to sustain those ‘key to success relationships’ that are safeguarding student learning and well-being; we know what works online, in person, and even in masks. We must move beyond political threats, to partner with teachers as practical intellectuals, whose nimbleness and perseverance will transform schooling now, in this most challenging time, and in the future.

Prof. Kramer Theodorou is a senior lecturer in education and Elementary Faculty Leader