Mandate vaccines, not masks


Hayden Walker

Pfizer vaccine vials sit atop a table at Oxford Rx, a newly opened pharmacy in the town of Oxford.

Hayden Walker

This editorial was originally published in Volume 41, Issue 1 of The Charger.

With the current resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the country after a summer of relative normalcy, it’s clear that the pandemic is nowhere near over. The Oxford School District has been quick to reimpose its mask mandate—much to the chagrin of many parents and some faculty—after previously promising that masks would not be required for the 2021-22 school year. However, without other measures such as social distancing, routine sanitation and staggered lunches, a mask mandate is ineffective. Since the beginning of the school year, at least 110 students across the district have been quarantined. The entire volleyball team was quarantined during the first week of school. Multiple teachers have tested positive for the coronavirus. Clearly, the mask mandate is not preventing the spread of the virus. If OSD truly wants to “Return to Learn,” as their back-to-school plan touts, they should require the one thing that has actually been proven to protect against the virus: the vaccine.

Mandating the vaccine at schools is not a novel concept. Many universities across the United States have taken it upon themselves to require that all students show proof of vaccination before being allowed to attend classes this fall. Indiana University has been a particularly notable example. They were one of the first public universities to require the vaccine and quickly came under legal scrutiny. The Supreme Court refused to block Indiana University’s decision, which effectively means that it is perfectly legal for an educational institution to mandate the COVID-19 vaccination. The favorite argument of those against mandating the vaccine in K-12 schools is that the vaccines have not been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration yet—they have only been authorized for emergency use. However, on Monday, August 23, the FDA gave its full approval to the Pfizer-BioN-Tech vaccine. Now, those claiming they would only get the vaccine if it was FDA-approved have no excuse.

For those still hesitant about the vaccine after its approval, consider this. COVID-19 tests have also not been FDA approved. They, too, have only been authorized for emergency use. Some school districts across the United States require coronavirus tests to be submitted. Either these school districts have been blatantly breaking the law, or there is nothing illegal about mandating a vaccine that has been authorized for emergency use. A vaccine mandate is both legally sound and much more effective than other attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Simply mandating masks is not enough unless other restrictions like social distancing are also reimposed. Many masks are not tight-fitting, meaning that there are gaps that could still allow infection to occur. Additionally, a large number of people do not wear their masks properly, but rather wear them below the nose or under the chin. Masks alone are not sufficient to prevent the spread of disease in a community, especially when they are not being worn correctly. Only when coupled with harsher restrictions can a mask mandate work. But reinstating all of these policies would take valuable time away from students who are “returning to learn” at school. Yes, last year’s regulations were tedious, taxing and arguably trivial. They were effective in keeping case and quarantine numbers low, though. What has changed about the coronavirus between last fall and now that warrants less harsh safety measures? Why is a more contagious variant being taken less seriously?

It is irresponsible to promote the false idea that this year’s safety rules are as effective as last year’s. Take a look at the hallways during class changes, and aside from the masks obscuring most of the students’ faces, it would seem like there was no pandemic at all. Couple that with the fact that masks are not required outside or while eating in the cafeteria, and a shutdown could occur should enough people contract COVID-19. Each of the three lunches are 25 minutes long, but it only takes a 15-minute interaction with someone who has the virus to become infected too.

Unfortunately, the vaccine does not prevent a person from contracting COVID-19. However, it does prevent death and hospitalization, which is key in fighting the virus. According to the Mississippi State Department of Health, over one million Mississippians are fully vaccinated but only 38 vaccinated people have been hospitalized. Reducing the rate of unnecessary hospitalizations is important to prevent shortages of intensive care beds. More people with the vaccine means that these beds are freed up for people who are high-risk. Because of Mississippi’s low vaccination rate (under 40 percent!) the state is now in a worse
position than ever before. Mississippi has never run out of hospital beds until now, even during the previous surges in July 2020 and January 2021 when the vaccine was still widely unavailable. Luckily, the Oxford community is doing its part to
promote vaccination.

Currently, the Oxford School District is hosting vaccine drives around Oxford. Through these voluntary efforts, they are showing that they recognize the importance of getting vaccinated. The infrastructure and resources needed for a mandate to work are already there. All OSD needs to do now is go one step further and require the vaccine. The mandate would only apply to students 12 and over, since vaccines have not yet been authorized for use in children under 12. Since the school year has already begun and students at OHS cannot be expected to get the vaccine immediately, I propose a hard deadline of November 29, the Monday after Thanksgiving break. This date would give ample time for all eligible students to get the vaccine, especially if OSD continues to run the vaccine drives.

Clearly, the Oxford School District recognizes the threat of the so-called “fourth wave” of COVID-19 that Mississippi is currently facing. If they didn’t, they would not have begun vaccine drives, nor would they have reimposed the mask mandate. However, even when faced with evidence that a mask mandate alone does not prevent the spread of disease, they remain hesitant to cross the line into more draconian tactics like social distancing, virtual learning options, and one-way hallways. The line has to be crossed at some point. The pandemic isn’t going away. As a District of Innovation, OSD has an obligation to set an example for other school districts across the country. Now that the vaccine is available, there remain only two choices: either mandate it, or continue to enact safety measures in a futile attempt to stop the spread of the virus.