In the last 18 months, much has been said about the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. This front line has now extended to include school board meetings, which have become battlefields of misinformation.
After more than a year of lives lost, knowledge hard-won, and sacrifices unparalleled, I look around and ask: How did we get here?
As a doctor and parent I’ve been reeling at those calling for civility as they simultaneously denigrate medical professionals of color as “illegal aliens” and “murderers.” Recoiling at the hypocrisy of advocating for children’s mental health during a county commissioners meeting, yet attacking a public official who experienced suicide in her own family. Feeling dismay as a militia group called for its members to camp out for hours near the district’s meeting room, canceling only after public outcry. Watching with alarm as lifelong public servants and school board candidates are subjected to threats and bullying.
Bucks County has become a microcosm of extremism that has infected the nation. In California, Texas, Florida, and elsewhere, anti-maskers have been mobilized by misinformation to organize aggressive, sometimes violent protests. Undoing that extremism requires reason, compassion, and a sense of shared responsibility.
Here are some facts to consider: Although children are far less likely to die of COVID-19 than adults, more than 500 children have died due to this virus in the United States, and not “only” children with underlying medical conditions, although they may be at higher risk. At least 4,000 children have been diagnosed with multisystemic inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) due to COVID, which often requires ICU care. There is much unknown about long COVID syndrome in children, including why it affects one child but not another. The rate of pediatric hospitalizations has increased dramatically in the last month, leading to a poignant statement to “protect our children,” issued by the nation’s children’s hospitals.
Another fact: Children are more likely to die of suicide than of COVID-19. But, minimizing one harm (COVID-19) by emphasizing another harm (suicide) is a logical fallacy used to diminish how COVID-19 has affected children. Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah, told Business Insider: “In any other time, if we had a new disease that killed  children, we would be pulling out all the stops, we would be doing everything we could to protect them. And yet people are saying, ‘Well, it’s not so bad, because it’s nothing like what happens to adults.’”
The death or ill health of any child is catastrophic because children are not supposed to die, especially from preventable infection. In the short time since its emergence, COVID-19 has broken into a sobering top 10 list — causes of death in children. In our relief at most children’s resilience in the face of COVID, have we forgotten that some children will suffer or die, leaving behind families and communities?
Inflammatory dialogue — as we’ve seen in Bucks County and around the nation — should not discourage policies already shown to protect our children. Public health measures like appropriate mask-wearing, case reporting, and contact tracing give our children a chance to safely return to school in person — and stay there. Within a week of schools reopening, the Quakertown Community School District superintendent wrote: “Without a contact tracing system in place at the County level and with optional masking, along with the lack of mandatory seating charts and seat assignments to make ‘close contact’ determinations ... one out of six students -- in Richland [Elementary School is in] quarantine. This is unacceptable. They need to be in the classroom. If they were masked, most of them would be.”
And yet, at nearly every meeting where school health and safety plans are discussed, the dialogue shifts rapidly to evoke the specter of child abuse — all over much-needed COVID mitigation strategies. In fact, at the Aug. 31 meeting of the Central Bucks school board a few attendees wore T-shirts that said, “Stop Abusing Children,” a nod to the upsetting idea that mandating a safety measure is somehow equivalent to perpetuating child abuse. These false equivalencies derail and deflect the true work of creating a health and safety plan.
“At nearly every meeting where school health and safety plans are discussed, the dialogue shifts rapidly to evoke the specter of child abuse — all over much-needed COVID mitigation strategies.”
We shouldn’t let these conspiracy-style fears push school boards to throw away all the lessons of prevention and mitigation.
Case in point: At the Aug. 31 meeting of the Central Bucks school board, attendees and board members themselves proposed subverting the state Department of Health mask mandate with “medical exemptions” requiring no medical signature, leaving educators in the unenviable position of enforcing school rules without support. While one such exemption claims to “forever discharge” school boards of liability for an unmasked child, it fails to account for the other children in the path of viral transmission. Do those parents absolve school boards of their responsibility to protect all children in their care? Tough decisions have been “pushed down” because school boards are failing to pivot with changing epidemiology and declining to comply with health recommendations by federal, state, and local health authorities.
One of many things COVID-19 has unleashed is a call to action: Learn, adapt, and move in real time, with impact on an impossibly large scale. Although this strikes a chord of uncertainty in all of us, responses based in histrionic conspiracy theories and anti-science hostility do our communities a grave disservice. In the weary battle against the various viruses we inhale — coronavirus, misinformation, and virulent rhetoric — let’s remember we are all on the front line. If we give in to extremism, we all pay the price.
Anusha Viswanathan is a pediatric infectious disease specialist, parent, and resident of Central Bucks.