Sometimes the answers to our quandaries seem so obvious we wonder why anyone sees a quandary in the first place.
That's the case today — with dithering in almost every sector of government about masks as U.S. and Tennessee virus cases are again surging, nationwide averaging 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. That includes about 3,000 cases a day in both Tennessee and Georgia, and 173 a day in Hamilton County.
The new delta variant is particularly problematic for children because those younger than 12 cannot yet be vaccinated and vaccine rates among teens is still quite low. Already, children's cases are spiking up, and school starts Thursday.
As the clock is ticking, however, we adults can't get our acts together:
- The Hamilton County Department of Health is "monitoring" active clusters at three child care centers in the county, with each cluster linked to five or more active COVID-19 cases, a department official said Friday. Some child care centers already have had to close and quarantine due to outbreaks. Child care centers also are reintroducing stricter virus protocols that were loosened before the variant spread.
- A group of Hamilton County parents and Tennessee doctors are calling on the Hamilton County school board and county Mayor Jim Coppinger to issue a temporary mask mandate for local schools — all in the face of political pressure to do otherwise.
- Already, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say all children and adults in schools should be wearing masks.
- On Friday, with a spike in pediatric respiratory illness already pushing children's hospitals across Tennessee to their limits, officials at Children's Hospital at Erlanger said they would "do what we have to do" to handle more youngsters as the highly contagious delta variant sweeps through.
- Some state leaders, however, including Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, have said masking policies are set at the local level.
- Other politicians, including Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, have said our very red state may take action if school systems impose mandates or segregate students based on vaccination status.
- Some Tennessee school systems, including Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, are requiring masks despite those political pressures against the move.
- To date, Hamilton County school officials have maintained the district will "recommend but not require" masks.
Let us say again: Schools start Thursday.
And let us say again: Children under age 12, the largest group of individuals not vaccinated for COVID-19, are not eligible for the vaccines yet, and the rate of vaccination among teens is low.
No, we are not saying schools should be closed, through we do now have a complete playbook for how to close them and keep students learning — albeit perhaps not as quickly or as well.
What's the next best thing? This is a no-brainer. Masks.
We don't throw our kids out the door to catch a bus in a rainstorm without raincoats, umbrellas or a rain hat. Why in the world is there even a question of not sending them to school with a mask and insisting they wear it to protect themselves and others from a potentially killer virus?
On Monday, pressed about an update of the county's school mask policy, Superintendent Bryan Johnson said the district is "still gathering information."
"This has become way too political a conversation," Johnson told the Times Free Press. "We have to be true to what science is saying and try to understand that. So we hope to have an update. We're still trying to gather and understand, we see it on both sides.
"When you make a recommendation that's as controversial as masks have become, you want to be really thoughtful about how you approach that, thoughtful about how you get input and really make sure that it's the right decision and it's being approached in the right way. So we're really showing a lot of deference to medical professionals, and trying to get insight from them, and our local community."
They are not "gathering information." They are being tactful and trying to gather consensus in a state and county where there is none.
Stacie Teague Smith, a parent of four children in local schools, told the TFP she has some input and insight: The spread of the delta variant and the lack of precautions in schools will hurt families.
"It feels inevitable that our family will face multiple quarantines," she said. "How are working parents supposed to manage? We can't rely on grandparents or others with such a dangerous virus, and how much time off will our employers allow? How do we cope with weeks of lost wages? How many 10-day quarantines until we lose our jobs?"
Listen to her, Hamilton County. Listen to her, Tennessee and Georgia and America. She's absolutely right.
There is no quandary. Politicians and school officials need to wise up and toughen up.
For the sake of our kids, our families and our jobs, masks must be worn in schools until almost all of us are vaccinated and COVID is contained.