By Dr. James H. Birkholz
No man is an island. – John Donne
It is readily apparent that the Cornwall-Lebanon School Board of Directors/Trustees and superintendent are not familiar with the works of Mr. Donne.
When I walked through the doors at the Cornwall-Lebanon School Board meeting on Aug. 16, 2021, the prevailing board sentiment was clear even before I sat down. Neither the superintendent nor a single board member wore a mask. This, despite data proven increases in cases of COVID-19 variants throughout our nation, Texan hospitals exceeding capacity, and other schools already demonstrating significant spread of disease in absence of masking requirements.
The decision of Dr. Philip L. Domencic and the Cornwall-Lebanon School Board trustees to make masking optional within a partially vaccine ineligible population was not based on scientific, peer reviewed literature or consideration of national recommendations.
Though the Health and Safety Plan references a “District Pandemic Team,” it is unclear whether this team included a medical provider or review of relevant literature. The recent recommendations of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) were ignored in favor of local exceptionalism.
Interestingly, while the current policy notes the success of the 2020-2021 school year following CDC guidelines, including masking, the new policy indicates CDC recommendations will be followed “to the greatest extent practicable based on community/District needs.”
It is somewhat confusing as to why our district finds it acceptable to acknowledge CDC guidelines one year but selectively follow them in the next. This is particularly vexing since children are now a growing at-risk COVID-19 population, more so when compared to last school year.
Why would a school board choose not to mitigate risk?
That children benefit from in-person learning is known, but that assumes a physically, nutritionally and mentally safe environment. While social distancing, increased cleaning and reported HVAC upgrades were acceptable mitigation strategies in the school district plan, mandatory face masking was not. Why not stop social distancing? Why not do away with hand washing? To do so would be just as arbitrary as the decision to forego masking.
Instead of maximizing safety, our trustees have chosen a “sort-of-okay” approach, but with evasive references regarding adherence to local and state mandates. Not doing the right thing because there is no mandate is intellectually lazy and avoids personal responsibility.
We are witnessing the continued diffusion of responsibility to higher levels of government coupled with an abject failure of leadership. Leadership is about ownership, making challenging decisions based on available data and the will to do what is best for the group. Leadership is not about displacing responsibility and making decisions when all the answers are available.
These are challenging times, but they demand strong, decisive and caring leadership. Instead, our children, educators and school staff are taking the risk for the scientifically invalid decisions of our leaders. The onus of failure now largely resides upon the Cornwall Lebanon School Board Members/Trustees and the district superintendent. The decision to make masking optional in schools defies logic, scientific data and completely usurps the concept of respect for our fellow citizens.
The irony of a school board ignoring scientific data is not lost upon the public. This decision teaches our children personal preference trumps public health, science and community safety. If we are to forgo masking in our schools, perhaps the school board of Cornwall Lebanon should also do away with dental screening and other vaccination mandates. Perhaps they should allow smoking, as well. These are all personal preferences, aren’t they? In isolation, one can opt to drink or smoke. In a group, different considerations arise. “No man is an island.”
We are indeed not islands. We are inexorably linked. The many and great freedoms we enjoy in our country do not include the freedom to put others at risk.
As a child growing up in wartime Germany, my father was awed by the largesse of American soldiers. Having not seen any fruit for months, never mind chocolate, Americans frequently shared their foodstuffs with him. They didn’t save it for themselves or avoid greater human responsibility. They didn’t do this “to the greatest extent practicable based on community/District needs.”
The soldiers simply gave what they had to a child they didn’t know, purely out of goodwill and a sense of community. This is the American way. Of the motivators prompting my father’s emigration this stood at the top, and he would go on to serve in the U.S. Army.
The Cornwall-Lebanon School District Health and Safety Plan pales in comparison. Making masking optional is an affront to science. It reflects local exceptionalism and is the absolute nadir of our narcissistic times, when even the health of our children and educators is not safe from opinion and questionable motives. This decision is devoid of the American value of mutual respect.
I hope the Cornwall-Lebanon School Board and Dr. Domencic will have the last laugh this school year if it proceeds uneventfully and safely. But I fear this will not be the case.
Dr. James H. Birkholz is a board certified radiologist in Hershey, Pa.