I sought to exercise my right as a parent under Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order 2 by opting my two elementary school children out of their school system’s mask mandate on Tuesday. I was told that if my children were unwilling to put on a mask, they were not allowed into the school building.

My school district, Fairfax County Public Schools, is suing to derail the provision that would give parents like me the right to opt my children out of this requirement.

On Monday, the board held a “virtual town hall.” I was allowed to submit questions through an online form, which were ignored. Instead, those watching mostly heard a presentation on mask efficacy, which is outdated information. The board explained how schools were experiencing a surge in omicron cases while also boasting about how their mitigation efforts were tremendously effective and must continue.

No mask, no school

That left me to deal directly with my children’s school, which I wish wasn’t the case. I tremendously respect and like my children’s elementary school leaders and teachers and recognize that the district has forced them to implement a policy that defies the governor’s executive order and frustrates parents. To minimize the disruption and allow them to prepare a response, I emailed the school principal the night before, explaining that I intended to bring my children to school without masks and if the school would not provide them services, then I would be there to take them home.

When I arrived at the school, it was clear my note had been received. I had a very respectful exchange with an assistant principal. She was polite and kind to me and my children, took my letter, and seemed sincerely sorry that it was her job to tell me that my kids could not enter the school that day. Yet, school board officials had clearly felt the need to prepare as if I – and any other parents who wanted to similarly make their opinions known or stand in support of me – were a threat to the community.

Not only did a security guard approach me before I even got to the school door, a Fairfax County press person introduced herself to me. They were there to determine who was allowed on school grounds. A reporter and fellow Fairfax father – whose own children will be eligible to attend that school next year – was told he couldn’t stand with me on the sidewalk of the school. Comically, the security guard pulled his mask down to bark orders, explaining that he pulled it down because he couldn’t talk through his mask.

That’s just one of the problems with face masks. Sadly, while I respect schools’ desire to protect students and staff from COVID-19, they downplay, if not ignore entirely, the very real harms caused by masks, especially to young children. My 7-year-old son has yet to attend elementary school unmasked. He spent the first six months of kindergarten online. When finally allowed in school, he was masked and told to stay within a chalk-lined box at recess to maintain social distance from his peers. During first grade, he has to wear a mask from the moment the bus picks him up until it delivers him home again eight hours later. All this for a virus that is overwhelmingly mild for young children.

Schools must trust parents’ judgment

The European Union has long recommended against masking children 12 and younger.

England recently tossed mask requirements altogether. 

As schools in many other countries have demonstrated, it’s possible to keep them open even without universally mandated mask use. Fortunately, around the country fewer and fewer school districts are forcing children to mask. Why is my school system so unwilling to reconsider this guidance in light of a very different strain of COVID? When are they going to give parents the ability to make important health decisions for their children?

Children have lost almost two years of normal childhood, not because of COVID-19, but because of our response to it. We shouldn’t require them to sacrifice anymore.

Photo credit: Asra Nomani