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Nora DiNuzzo couldn't believe it when she learned that on August 19, her local school district overrode the mask mandate at her children's school in North Allegheny, Pennsylvania. The district instead left the decision up to the families, since, as one parent put it on the local news, “What is best for my child may not be best for your child.”

DiNuzzo disagreed, since she has a child under 12, who legally isn’t allowed to be vaccinated yet. "My unvaccinated child had no other protection from the virus except masking," she said. "And masking is only effective if everyone does it."

Days after the board's decision, DiNuzzo and several like-minded parents in this Pittsburgh suburb took their school district to court. On August 23, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Horan found in their favor, issuing a restraining order preventing the school district from overriding their school’s mask mandate. The order was issued on procedural grounds, leaving the substance of the override aside.

"We caught them in a procedural issue, but obviously there was a reason behind why we brought the suit and hoped to overturn the decision," DiNuzzo said.

The judge’s order was bolstered on August 31, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) instituted a new statewide mask mandate. But according to DiNuzzo, the mandate is open-ended and enforcement remains spotty — which she says has allowed many parents in the district to ignore the requirement.

“We’re in the fight of our lives here to keep our kids safe,” DiNuzzo said.

The North Allegheny fight came as students across the U.S. began returning to school amid escalating resistance to public health mandates. The stories from DiNuzzo and other parents around the country reveal the extent to which some school authorities and parents will go in order to ignore the science and resist doing the right thing for the good of the community

“Remarkable Protection”

A new study released September 1 strongly suggests that mask-wearing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID.

Researchers at Yale University, Stanford Medical School, the University of California, Berkeley, and the nonprofit policy organization Innovations for Poverty Action used data collected from a survey of 341,830 adults in 600 rural communities in Bangladesh, where just over 10 percent of the population is estimated to be vaccinated. The findings were clear: Mask-wearing prevented one-in-three symptomatic COVID infections and a sustained encouragement pressure campaign resulted in a threefold increase in the use of masks.

“These results illustrate the remarkable protection that low-cost masks provide,” study co-author Dr. Stephen Luby, professor of medicine and infectious disease at Stanford, said in a statement.

Study co-author Laura Kwong, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said that the results were “consistent with lab research” on the effectiveness of masking to prevent COVID.

“These results suggest that we could prevent unnecessary death and disease if we got people to wear high-performance masks, such as surgical masks, in schools, workplaces, shopping centers, places of worship, and other indoor spaces,” Kwong added.

The study used a number of tactics to enforce masking, relying on social pressure. By gently enforcing the norms, researchers increased masking in the communities from 13 percent to 42 percent.

“Stress Levels Are Off The Charts”

Around the country, adults — mostly parents, but not always — are using measures instituted by school districts and states like mask mandates as proxies for their culture war against public health. From Los Angeles to New York, anti-vax and anti-health mandate conspiracists are making it harder to control the spread of the disease in schools, and forcing parents to make difficult decisions.

“As a parent, I feel like I’m sending my kids — one vaxxed, two not old enough yet — directly into the line of fire, but as a working mom, what other options do I have?” Amanda Kegley, a parent in Minnesota, told me. “Stress levels are off the charts.”

Pfizer and BioNTech, which manufacture one of the most widely used COVID vaccines, have said they will seek authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to start vaccinating children aged 5-11 next month, and children younger than 5 in November.

Masks are required in Kegley’s school district, but children will remove them to eat in the cafeteria, risking infection. But with no remote learning option, there’s little she can do but hope that people follow the rules — and that’s far from certain.

“There’s a loud group of parents claiming masks are ‘child abuse’ and they’ll send their kids without [them], despite the requirement,” Kegley said.

St. Paul isn’t the only municipality to face off against conspiracy theorists with outlandish claims of masks harming children. In Los Angeles, anti-vaxxers and angry parents alike have fought against the state’s school mask mandates.

But as the Los Angeles Times noted in an article last month on the conflict, for many students, masking has become normalized and second nature. And even those who don’t like wearing them have largely accepted their responsibility to keep others safe, as Hawthorne High School senior Patrick Ugwuezumba told the Times.

“I don’t like it,” Ugwuezumba said, “but if it’s going to keep me safe, and other people safe, I might as well wear it.”

Continuing Struggle Over Mask Mandates

Some parents, like Nicole Sokolowski in New York City, want districts to do more. Sokolowski told me that while she welcomes the vaccine mandates in New York, she wishes the city’s schools would expand the requirement to anyone who enters the building.

“I would like to see the COVID vaccine mandated for parents or caregivers that enter the school,” Sokolowski told me.

Though difficult to enforce, the impulse to control the environment as much as possible is an understandable one — especially given the behavior of some authorities like the school board in North Allegheny. According to Katie Leslie, another activist in the district who has two children in North Allegheny, some local anti-maskers are poking at the language of Pennsylvania’s new statewide mask mandate to find weak spots they can exploit, such as language that states districts “may” require medical documentation for mask exemptions.

“Some districts are already creating exemption forms and stating that they will not ask for medical documentation,” Leslie said. Furthermore, she added, “The legislature and several public and private schools are also suing to have [the mandate] overturned.”

For DiNuzzo, who has been fighting to keep her children safe from the disease for over a year-and-a-half, the efforts of anti-maskers is mind boggling. “It shocks the conscience,” she said.

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