When I was in 8th grade (in 1985), my mom and I went to Japan for three weeks in October. It was field trip season, so many of the sites we visited were full of school groups. As an 8th grader from California, I couldn’t help but notice the hats. Each class wore the same hats while they were on trips, so places like Mt. Fuji were awash in waves of yellow hats, white hats, red hats, and blue hats. Even as an 8th grader, I remember thinking that this would never fly in the United States. I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if our school tried to make every kid in my class wear a hat for any length of time, but I imagined that many would end up getting thrown, getting lost, getting crumpled into backpacks or back pockets, getting thrown out of school bus windows, or being worn in any way besides on people’s heads. I imagined that our teachers would quickly get tired of telling people to put their hats back on and that the expectation to wear hats would fizzle out pretty quickly.

School children in Japan wearing yellow hats as they follow a teacher carrying a yellow flag.
School children in Japan wearing yellow hats as they follow a teacher carrying a yellow flag.

When the CDC (before Trump took it over) came out with its guidelines for reopening schools last May, I (like many teachers) had questions. How will we get our students to keep their masks on? What will happen if a child refuses to wear a mask? What if they hadn’t brought a mask? Would we need to buy extras, or would the school supply them? What if a child slimed their mask after a sneeze or a cough, or dropped it in the toilet, or chewed through it? Would children with sensory or other issues be able to handle wearing masks all day? How much would our administration be willing to back us up if a child refused to wear a mask? What would we do in the more likely scenario that our administration wasn’t going to do much to help with this?

Teachers wondered how many days would probably go by before a parent sent a note saying that their child thought her mask was uncomfortable, and so they were giving her permission to not wear one. How many days before a parent said that they felt the mask requirement was an infringement on their child’s freedom and personal rights, so they weren’t going to make him wear one, weren’t going to send him to school with one, and weren’t going to support the school when he refused to put one on? I wondered whether teachers should start a betting pool now on how many days would go by before the notes and complaining phone calls started coming in. Or, conversely, how quickly we would start to get calls from the over-protective parents who were concerned because they’d heard that another child took his mask off at recess, so they were concerned we weren’t following mandates tightly enough. Teachers started posting on humor sites and making videos about what they guessed that wearing masks would look like in their classrooms.

People talk about schools’ reopenings and say that other countries did it successfully. But they’re ignoring that other countries have more of a concept of doing things for the good of their community. We are comparing ourselves to other countries where people trust the government and follow reasonable mandates. When the government says, “each child must wear a mask to school,” children in Hong Kong all wear masks to schools. People don’t argue about it. They don’t ask for personal exceptions. They don’t make it into an debate about freedom or personal choice. They don’t fall back on the self-centered relativism of “Respect my choice to not wear a mask and I’ll respect your choice to not wear one” (while conveniently ignoring the fact that wearing a mask protects other people from THEIR germs).

This is why other countries have flattened their curve. Their schools can reopen without taking as much risk of spiking rates. Maybe questioning authority, thinking independently, and not joining the herd is part of what makes our country innovative and dynamic. But not when we’re to the point where a teenage worker at a theme park gets assaulted for asking an adult man to comply with the park’s rules and wear a mask. Individual choice doesn’t work during a pandemic, when collective action is required of EVERYONE. But our country’s political divisions sabotage any effort at collective action. Even simple steps like “wear a mask” devolve into a political debate, and then become framed as being about about larger, more existential issues like “freedom” and “choice” — when they’re not. Maybe people the U.S. will never embrace wearing matching hats, but a country that cannot even summon the collective will to all wear masks or follow basic health guidelines is not ready to reopen its schools.

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