COVID restrictions linger in California

This past weekend, I served as a parent judge at a high school debate, which reminded me of the COVID restrictions I used to navigate daily.  I arrived at "judge headquarters," which was a local high school library, to join 50–60 judges logged into their laptops to learn their Round 1 assignments.  After the tournament directors released the round's debate topic with student pairing and judges, judges were leaving to find their assigned classrooms.  I was asked if I had a mask.  I didn't.  I was told masks were available on the front table.  After being warned two more times, I moved outdoors.

More than a year after California eliminated mandatory indoor masking, the tournament director independently established guidelines for his tournament.  He's granting the in-person experience my son needs to compete, but he mandates masks (and, previously, vaccines or testing) to provide a protective shield for those "immunocompromised" competitors.  He no longer has the backing of the CDC, where he can say he's following their guidelines.  Instead, he's making his own rules regarding a library that before the bell rang to dismiss students a few hours earlier was a space where students and teachers could choose whether or not to mask.

I should be appreciative that this league has moved tournaments in-person.  Last school year, all tournaments were online, and my son disliked how everyone read notes off their computer screen (and searched the internet during their rounds).  Probably 75% of local California universities and high schools either canceled their annual tournaments or moved them online.  Thus, he has attended roughly one tournament every other month, which doesn't allow him much practice.  This is just another way we're short-changing our youth.  Imagine how much better a debater he could be if he could gain the experience of competing every weekend, like his sister, who graduated pre-COVID.

My son and his partner didn't wear a mask for Round 1, and during Round 2, a tournament official barged into their classroom, plunked two masks on their table, and promised to drop them from the tournament if they were reported not wearing a mask again.  My presumption is that someone, either a judge or competitor, had ratted on them.  The cost of not complying can be higher for kids than adults.

When I asked the league director why Stanford was keeping its tournament online, he told me that Stanford get more entries (and earns more money) without the in-person logistical hassles.  By contrast, U.C. Berkeley hosted its annual tournament in-person this year, though when it moved its January 2022 tournament online last year, my other son gave up debate.  This preference for working from home may be a Bay Area phenomenon; while I personally was thrilled to leave my house to go to work during the lockdown, most of my friends and neighbors were happy to work from home.  I can't judge whether software people are more or less productive from home, but I'm certain I'm not as good a physician on Zoom.

This debate league and private universities like Stanford have the jurisdiction to make rules regarding tournaments.  The tournament director may be correct that Stanford draws more competitors when tournaments are online than in-person.  Either way, Stanford has deprived many students of the opportunity to become better debaters. 

As a country, we have lost sight of the purpose of public health: educating while preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health.  Local public health's job is to accurately explain to citizens the risks and benefits of masking, and to acknowledge that not everyone can possibly have the same risk profile.  By promoting a universal intervention for a healthy population, these people are failing to protect the vulnerable.  By mandating masks, they are admitting they can't explain the problem sufficiently that people would voluntarily mask or lock down.  Florida governor Ron DeSantis wrote a letter supporting star tennis player Milos Djokovik's request to compete in Miami that illustrates the point: Biden's air travel ban on unvaccinated foreign nationals is ungrounded in logic, common sense, science, or concern for human health.

The complacency I observe surrounding unscientific edicts that undermine rational thought, freedom, and personal responsibility worries me.  Schools have become sources of indoctrination rather than critical thinking.  What is the price our students pay?  Everyone is so eager for a "return to normalcy" that people fail to recognize the lessons we are teaching.  Are we teaching children that those in authority need to be blindly followed?  When local public health officials issue mandates, that is proof that they have failed at their job — that they have not identified a vulnerable population that requires special protection and cannot adequately explain the risk or benefit of masking or vaccines or lockdowns.

That private organizations are issuing mandates is one negative consequence of public health mandates — either mandates are being coerced (like Big Tech censorship) or mandates are normalized as the best method for "promoting safety."  Despite no scientific evidence that these mandates protect health and plenty of evidence of economic, social, and health harms, we haven't required a reckoning (or repentance) from public health.  Are we setting the stage for a return to masking (and test and trace and quarantine) when a next virus strain comes along? 

Jamaica Plain is a pseudonym.

Image via Pxfuel.

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