116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For several years, I’ve served in a temporary on-demand role for my county elections department as a team leader for early voting workers. It is one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of.
Last October, a young woman received her turn in the socially distanced line to request her general election ballot. Masks were required for all who wished to vote in person before Election Day. I took her ID, scanned it in our system and asked her our set of check-in questions twice. Each time she frowned, and after the second attempt, the woman turned her head, indicating that she couldn’t hear me. It was then that I noticed her cochlear implant, similar to my late grandfather, who lived with significant hearing loss.
Wanting to best serve her, I stood back as far as I could to ensure maximum distance between us. I peeled back my mask, held my breath and silently mouthed the words, “Could you confirm your address and date of birth, please?”
And as difficult as it is for some proponents of mask-wearing to admit, some individuals experience circumstances which make it either difficult or impossible to comply with a mask mandate.
I’ll never forget the way the woman's expression changed, from one of strain to one of surprise — and relief. She answered the questions easily and proceeded to the next step in the voting process. Almost a year later, it stirs my emotions when I think back to our encounter.
What a terrible time it must have been to be cut off from her ability to fully communicate.
Unfortunately, those awful times may continue for many who struggle with wearing masks, as businesses and schools alike return to mandating them. On Sept. 13, federal judge Robert Pratt granted a motion for a temporary restraining order which bars enforcement of the ban on mask mandates in Iowa schools signed into law in May.
Pratt — who apologized over the summer for seemingly “inappropriate partisan statements” made during a December phone call with a reporter which later became the basis for a judicial misconduct claim — opined that the ban on mask mandates violated the right to equal access of school programming for disabled students at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19.
But no two disabilities are alike, and no two needs are identical. And as difficult as it is for some proponents of mask-wearing to admit, some individuals experience circumstances which make it either difficult or impossible to comply with a mask mandate.
For example, people living with neurodivergence, such as those on the autism spectrum, can have sensory issues that are incompatible with anything touching one’s face. While the American Migraine Foundation encourages the wearing of masks, they also point out that individuals susceptible to migraines could develop compression headaches from the earloops/bands that secure a mask in place. A migraine could also be triggered by dehydration if one is likely to drink less water due to wearing the mask.
Furthermore, compulsory masking is potentially a tremendous stressor for some claustrophobics who may not have previously diagnosed ability-related issues. I know of at least two individuals experiencing this problem.
“I’ve managed to wear one about 10 minutes before I start to hyperventilate,” panicked a friend from high school on social media. The memory of my single experience with claustrophobia 17 years ago tells me she’s likely not exaggerating the issue.
Some students with asthma can find that masks worsen their breathing. Allergy sufferers can be affected by allergens trapped in a dirty mask, triggering coughing, sneezing and runny noses. Students with ADHD could suffer self-esteem issues from being chided every 10 minutes to wear their mask correctly.
Should a student with any of these types of issues be unsuccessful at obtaining a medical exemption from a mask mandate, their education could experience significant setbacks.
“But muh freedom,” mock some, ridiculing those who believe the decision to wear a mask is best left to the wearer. “Your selfishness is the reason people are dying,” exclaim countless others. “This is about protecting our children!”
Their intentions are sincere. Citizens are scared. But do the numbers match the fearful rhetoric?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s own reporting suggests it does not. According to the most recent data available on its website, of the 33 million reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S., under 4.6 million, or about 13.9 percent, are in children under 18. Of those reported cases, the mortality rate is 0.01 percent.
Every death is certainly tragic, especially in the case of a child, regardless of cause. But does a pediatric COVID-19 mortality rate of 0.01 percent truly justify the extreme measures that some have demanded, especially in light of the immediate disruptions that mandatory mask-wearing can cause in a child’s education?
Federal law defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” That definition extends to a broad swath of individuals.
By concluding that some disabled children’s rights will be violated if schools aren’t able to mandate the wearing of a mask, Judge Pratt’s ruling has sent a message to the child whose disability is in fact exacerbated by compulsory masking: That their right to an education is not as important as the rights of some others.
Having grown up a disabled child myself in a public school and having required certain accommodations, at that, I am having a terrible time coming to terms with the fact the needs of some students are being pitted against the needs of others.
So many have become so afraid of the (slim) possibility of death or disease that we’ve numbed ourselves to the disruptions in our children’s development. It seems that collectively, our society has forgotten how to reasonably assess risk. Because of that, I fear that our children, especially, will pay a terrible price in the long term.
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org