by Dr. Robert Luebke
Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
An uptick in Covid-19 cases is jeopardizing the school year for students and families and exposing the deep differences among North Carolinians over who should make decisions about children’s health and how children are educated during a pandemic.
At the beginning of August, school districts were evenly split between those that required masks and those that made them optional. However, a recent spike in Covid cases has changed all that. As of September 8, 112 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts were requiring students to wear masks for K-12 instruction.
While masking policy in schools may be nearly uniform, how parents feel about the requirement to mask is not.
According to an August 2021 Civitas Poll, parents supported a requirement to have students wear masks by a margin of 55% to 36%, with 8% undecided. When asked “Who is best suited to determine if public school students in North Carolina should or should not be required to wear masks?”, however, a plurality of respondents chose parents (45%). The next most popular responses were Gov. Roy Cooper (20%), the State Board of Education (12%), and local boards of education (11%).
A deeper look at the data reveals the divisions run deep. Only 23% of conservatives supported mask requirements, compared to 69% of moderates and 91% of liberals. The differences over masks are especially pronounced regarding gender. Women supported mask requirements by a ratio of 62% to 28%, whereas men’s views on mask requirements were evenly divided, 45% in support and 45% opposed.
So how can North Carolina navigate its way through the mask wars?
Florida might hold some of the answer.
In an August 10 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Bill Mattox of the James Madison Institute in Florida wrote how the Sunshine State is using school choice to help resolve the mask controversy.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order July 30 to “protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children,” but four of the state’s local school boards announced they’d impose masks anyway.
So last week the Florida Department of Education issued a rule making students who suffer “COVID-19 harassment” eligible for a Hope Scholarship that allows them to attend another (public or private) school of their parents’ choosing.
The announcement elicited widespread praise from parents who oppose mask mandates and knee-jerk derision from Mr. DeSantis’ detractors nationwide. But the most interesting response came from some Covid-wary Florida parents who support mask requirements. They asked if they too could take advantage of the Hope Scholarships. The Department said yes.
Thus, it is now possible for families on all sides of the mask wars to send their kids to a school with Covid policies that match their preferences.
North Carolinians should laud DeSantis’ efforts. DeSantis squarely places the ability to make health-related decisions in the hands of parents, a sentiment supported by parents in the recent Civitas Poll.
Could North Carolina enact similar legislation?
Florida’s action is tied to a provision that amended Florida’s Hope Scholarship and allows parents of children who have been bullied, harassed, assaulted, or threatened to transfer to another public school or enroll in a private school. The Florida Department of Education considers mistreatment over masking a form of harassment and will allow students to be eligible for the Hope Scholarship.
North Carolina has a few options to help navigate the mask controversy. First, it should be reiterated that county school systems set their own mask policies. So, it may still be possible in some places to favorably influence mask policies.
Second, North Carolina and local school districts are awash in federal Covid aid. They could use this money to improve school ventilation systems and other ways to help address these concerns.
Also, North Carolina could follow Florida and add mask harassment or bullying as a condition of eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship. Where would the money come from? As of August 17, about 84 percent of funds North Carolina had received for Covid relief were unspent.
Covid is a persistent and constant challenge for parents and educators alike. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that different populations have different risk levels and health concerns. Such realities argue against central planning and a one-size-fits-all approach and instead call for entrusting parents with the ability to make the best health and educational decisions for their child.
School choice provides a real and manageable solution to a vexing problem. Anti–school choice advocates will howl. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely the public schools will shut their doors again. The variety of cases and conditions places a premium on parents having the ability to place their child in a school where their child is safe and one which mirrors the health and educational values of the parents.
Allowing North Carolina parents, a say in where their kids learn during Covid can go a long way in helping us successfully navigate the virus and turn down the noise accompanying the mask wars.