Back at school with safety measures against coronavirus respiratory infection. Students and teacher wearing face masks in class. Children with mouths and noses covered sitting at desks in classroom

Bioethics Forum Essay

Public Reason, Public Schools, and Mask Mandates

As a philosopher, I am committed to the importance of supporting beliefs with good arguments.

As a parent of an 11-year-old who is not yet eligible for a Covid vaccine, I am concerned about the lack of good arguments being offered by those resisting Covid protocols and social mitigation efforts.

As a philosopher who is a parent, facilitating awareness of the importance of public reason and the dangers of faulty reasoning is part of how I care for my son.

In South Carolina, where I live, we are not just ignoring good arguments, but actually legislating on the basis of bad ones. The budget rule, Proviso 1.108, threatens the funding of schools that require masks. This stands in direct violation of the recommendations of not only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but also the state’s own Department of Health and Environmental Control. Those calling for the repeal of this budget rule range from the American Civil Liberties Union to the South Carolina Parent Teachers Association. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether South Carolina and four other states that prohibit mask mandates in schools are violating the rights of children with disabilities or compromised immune systems to have equal access to public education.

It is heartbreaking that my son goes to a school where requiring masks is prohibited. He sits in science classes and learns about the importance of experimental data from unmasked teachers whose actions contradict their lessons. His school day is marked by fear of catching the virus from people who refuse to follow the evidence and fear of reprimand if he speaks up about it. This is not only a tragedy of the commons, but also a failure to appreciate the importance of public reason. We are equivocating between the “rights” of parents to willfully refuse to do what the data says is best for children and the rights of parents to try to keep their kids alive. Similarly, we are ignoring the inconsistency of encouraging STEM opportunities while rejecting scientific expertise.

Bans on mask mandates and the public acquiescence to them are based on arguments that depend on fallacies in reasoning. Let’s look at two of the most common arguments that are being offered.

The first argument is that requiring masks restricts freedom because wearing masks is a personal choice. But this argument ignores that the schools are public spaces marked throughout by restrictions on some freedoms in the name of protecting the more basic liberties guaranteed to everyone. Parents do not have the freedom to just come and go at the school: they have to check in at the office to visit, show ID to pick up children, provide immunization records to enroll their children, and ensure their children adhere to dress codes. Schools do not allow smoking; they ban weapons. Rather than restricting liberty, such measures  provide the conditions for its possibility. What you believe to be true is a private matter, but if you act on those beliefs in public spaces in ways that threaten the lives of others, then it is no longer a personal choice, but a matter of public concern.

Importantly, this point about freedom should not be a political matter. Small government conservatives and socially progressive democrats agree that unrestricted freedom undermines the idea of the social contract. They are unified that there must be a balance between commitments to freedom and equality. The political disagreement lies in exactly how that balance is best achieved. To suggest, as so many do, that masks are matters of personal choice is correct only if that choice has no bearing on the lives and liberties of others. But since viruses do not respect personal liberties, not wearing a mask in a public space violates the equality of the freedoms of all within that space.

The second argument is specific to school boards and local leaders who claim that they are not able to require masks because of state laws. This argument assumes that the contingent legislation yields actual necessity. It does not. Part of the public charge to leaders is to stand against injustice—even when perpetrated by those in power. Yes, standing in this way will come at some cost, but people cannot excuse immoral behavior by claiming that they are simply following orders. Indeed, I am sure that we all wish many leaders and school boards in our history had found the fortitude to stand against the provisos that supported segregation.

Flourishing societies depend on courageous leaders like Baron Davis, the superintendent of South Carolina Richland 2, who instituted a mask mandate and risked losing 30% of his state funds. Sadly the South Carolina Supreme Court sided with the Proviso over Davis’s objection. In South Carolina, public reason has been abandoned in the name of politics.

True confidence requires genuine humility. Far too many state leaders are refusing to show such humility as the Delta variant surges. It is a public duty to stand against the injustice facilitated by power and stand for the basic liberties of health, safety, and well-being that public educational spaces must guarantee to all. To do anything less would be unreasonable in light of the evidence and unthinkable in the face of the vulnerable.

Epistemic failures lead to moral failures. Poor reasoning invites false beliefs and poor decisions, but during a pandemic, it is resulting in preventable suffering and death. Both our bodily health and the health of our democracy depend on a commitment to reason-giving and responsible social critique. We should expect our leaders to make better decisions, but in order to do so we need to hold them accountable when their arguments are flawed.

J. Aaron Simmons, PhD (@JAaronSimmons) , is a professor of philosophy at Furman University, President of the Søren Kierkegaard Society (USA), and author or editor of numerous books including Kierkegaard’s God and the Good Life, God and the Other, and Christian Philosophy.

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  1. Dear Aaron, thanks for this powerful reminder of our ethical commitments to the principle of liberty and to our duties to resist and reject bad policies. Are there any references you recommend to translate the liberty argument to the case of refusing vaccination?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ignacio. So, as a great resource for general information on good argumentation strategies and methods (as well as a host of fallacies to avoid), see Why We Argue (and How We Should) by Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin. Regarding the specific idea about political liberties being anchored in the idea of particular restrictions on some secondary freedoms in order to ensure the more basic liberties that ground our public lives, there is nothing that immediately jumps to mind (that is fairly accessible). The reason for this is that this idea is such a basic conception that it is taken for granted in basically all of the political philosophy occurring in the broadly liberal tradition. So, the idea that I am presenting here is not so much a specific view defended by some thinkers, but more of a foundational claim operating in liberal political theory. That said, a great book that does deal with matters of social disagreement in ways that speak to at least related ideas, check out Robert Talisse’s Democracy and Moral Conflict. I hope that helps. Thanks for thinking with me about these important issues of shared social life.

  2. The only schools that I know of requiring students to adorn specific articles of clothing are privately funded.
    Yes, vaccinations that are FDA approved may be required on the basis of public health for public school attendance but there are exceptions. Students meeting exception requirements from inoculations are not kept separate from other students nor are they required to wear masks.
    There is not an FDA approved vaccination for children under age 12 therefore there is no imperative to require vaccination of students in this age demographic attending public schools.
    I do not see where an obligation to decrease potential virus transmission rationalizes a mask mandate. The microbiological milieu of a public school system (any school system) is such that it could compel mask wear at all times were decreasing transmission the reason for mask wear.
    There is nothing, to my knowledge, prohibiting mask wear given the current situation. Forcing your own child to wear a mask at school to decrease their risk of acquiring a virus is all that can be offered/enforced. And I am unconvinced that this isn’t the right approach.
    People have a right to be and stay healthy. People don’t have a right to keep me healthy; that onus is on me and me alone.

    1. Thanks for the engagement, Rob. So, here is some data on school uniforms – in the 2017-2018 year, 20% of all public schools required uniforms (https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=50). So, it does seem that there are quite a few public schools who think that this is in the best interests of student safety (the main argument, supported by the data, is that it cuts down on violence in those schools). Yes, there are reasonable exceptions for all sorts of public health measures and the idea that there might be some kids unable to wear masks or get vaccinated for legitimate reasons actually cuts in favor of the mandate not against it – for the sake of those kids the rest of us should do more to try to protect them since their vulnerability is more manifest. Regarding the vaccines, it is again precisely because there is no approved vaccine for kids under 12 that the argument for universal masking is so strong in the name of public health. You are right that individual children can opt to wear masks (as my son does), but the laws prevent requiring masks for everyone, which is what I am arguing is misguided. Additionally, I think your final claim again cuts in favor of what I am claiming in this post. The idea that people have the right to stay healthy (so far as possible) means that we do have a social obligation not to engage in behaviors that risk the health and safety of others. No one has the right to engage in behaviors that unnecessarily risk the lives of others without their consent. It is one thing for you to choose to engage in high risk behavior that threatens your own safety (rock climbing, sky diving, or whatever), but masking is about not forcing everyone else to be on the rock face or airplane with you. Mask mandates (in light of the evidence for their effectiveness at reducing transmission) are about ensuring that our schools provide safe spaces for education. Currently, the legislation that prohibits mask mandates is threatening that safety and violating the right of kids to be able to learn without undo risk. These are difficult issues because none of us are excited about the options. Yet, by doing what we can to realize that we are interdependent on each other to create societies that flourish, we can make these difficult times more easily navigated by all.

      1. Great piece by the way. It is nice to engage in intelligent discourse versus the babble on tv talk shows etc.

        The severity of illness for pediatric patients has not significantly increased although the numbers of peds patients affected by corona have, due to there being more disease in the general population ( https://www.aappublications.org/news/2021/09/03/covid-delta-variant-children-hospitalizations-090321 ).
        According to the assertion that because there are some more-vulnerable students out there that everyone then should go out of their way to protect them is one that lacks ‘teeth’. What is the magic number of vulnerable students that warrant extra precautions, and to Dan’s point, what is the severity of illness that warrants protections? COVID is, for MOST, a cold at worst; for MOST, adenovirus or rotavirus are little more than minor illnesses. So, if the approach is that we must do the most we can to protect as many as we can, we ought to be always attempting to decrease disease transmission of all kinds.
        To be clear, I asserted not that people have the right to stay healthy but that we all have the right to keep ourselves healthy. To claim there is a social obligation for me to wear a mask while I BREATHE to keep other members of society who may choose to have themselves vaccinated or to wear a mask themselves—to keep themselves healthy—is to infringe on my rights (there, I said it). My breathing is not a behavior that unnecessarily “risks the lives of others”.

  3. “Students meeting exception requirements from inoculations are not kept separate from other students nor are they required to wear masks.”

    The specifics of requirements for exceptions are a matter that would bear determination for each kind of infection of concern. When death is not a rare event along a chain of transmission that passes through an individual who has been exempted from vaccination, a requirement to wear a mask and even seperation might be entirely warranted. And depending on what those particulars of infection are, and the likelihood of an unvaccinated individual contracting the illness to pass to others, whether religious exemptions would be appropriate, in addition to any medical exemptions, is a very live question. In the current situation we’re in a pandemic with significant community prevalence of the virus, AND our vaccines for this virus are reducing but not preventing infections among the vaccinated, or infectiousness among the vaccinated. So again, masking and seperation for the unvaccinated might be warranted while such conditions obtain. Indeed masking among the vaccinated can be warranted and is being acknowledged so.

    “The microbiological milieu of a public school system (any school system) is such that it could compel mask wear at all times were decreasing transmission the reason for mask wear.”

    The particulars are again relevant and important. Colds do not produce sufficient peril to warrant such measures to decrease transmission. Ditto minor GI virus “bugs.” SARS-CoV-2 isn’t a cold.

    “There is nothing, to my knowledge, prohibiting mask wear given the current situation. . . People don’t have a right to keep me healthy . . .”

    Masks are significantly more effective in preventing infectious people (who wear them) from infecting other people, than they are in protecting uninfected people (who wear them) from becoming infected. So our interest in having you wear a mask Ron, is more about protecting us from you, if you should be infectious, than protecting your health from us, if we should be infectious.

    Yet I have a self-interest in you not being infected: if you become infected, you would then have a probability of wanting to claim and consume some of our limited health resources. You would thereby decrease the access of everyone else to health care: for Covid infections they’d done everything they could to avoid but which they’d developed anyway; for completely non-Covid health problems that still go on in the world—people hit by drunk drivers, or kids with cancer, or medical care around pregnancy—and indeed as the system gets strained the quality of any care deteriorates for everyone in the system. The Covid infections among those who have not or/and are not taking the precautions available to take, are additionally contributing to the impoverishment of our shared health care system, first by killing heathcare providers, now more often by burning them out and inducing them to leave the system. That is something the preventative-resistant are doing to the rest of us that makes their behavior—apparently behavior and attitudes you would support Ron—not just an onus upon them, but a burden for us. And Ron, candidly, I don’t want to carry you.

    1. Don,

      I’m going to respond to your comments in a similar fashion that you responded to mine, I hope you don’t mind.

      “When death is not a rare event along a chain of transmission that passes through an individual who has been exempted from vaccination, a requirement to wear a mask and even separation might be entirely warranted…… masking and separation for the unvaccinated might be warranted while such conditions obtain. Indeed masking among the vaccinated can be warranted and is being acknowledged so.”

      2% of all pediatric hospitalizations are passing, not 2% of all pediatric patients. What are you qualifying as a ‘rare event’?

      “Colds do not produce sufficient peril to warrant such measures to decrease transmission. Ditto minor GI virus “bugs.” SARS-CoV-2 isn’t a cold.”

      Colds, in most, don’t. Nor do GI bugs. COVID doesn’t either IN MOST.

      “Masks are significantly more effective in preventing infectious people (who wear them) from infecting other people, than they are in protecting uninfected people (who wear them) from becoming infected.”

      This is not true. What is true is that masking of people carrying the virus prevents spread of the virus into the air. Uninfected people wearing masks is the best way to prevent contracting the infection.

      “Yet I have a self-interest in you not being infected: if you become infected, you would then have a probability of wanting to claim and consume some of our limited health resources.”
      I would not utilize mechanical ventilation. The only other treatments that ‘kind of’ work are steroids, that I am tracking.
      I would never ask you to carry me, Don. Because I wouldn’t want to ‘burden you’. So stop burdening me with your ‘save everyone at all costs’ mentality.

    2. Thank you Dan, for your very helpful comments and for giving the extra medical context for thinking about these issues. As a philosopher, I lean VERY heavily on my friends who are experts like you to help me gather the relevant evidence that can inform the arguments that we offer in public and use to support our beliefs and guide our actions. One of my good friends is a professor of biostatistics at Vanderbilt and I have been filling his inbox with questions as I do the best I can to navigate things that impact us all and yet quickly leave so many of us confused. Thank you again for the clarity and insight.

  4. “When death is not a rare event along a chain of transmission that passes through an individual who has been exempted from vaccination, a requirement to wear a mask and even seperation might be entirely warranted…… masking and seperation for the unvaccinated might be warranted while such conditions obtain. Indeed masking among the vaccinated can be warranted and is being acknowledged so.”
    2% of all pediatric hospitalizations are passing, not 2% of all pediatric patients. What are you qualifying as a ‘rare event’?

    “Colds do not produce sufficient peril to warrant such measures to decrease transmission. Ditto minor GI virus “bugs.” SARS-CoV-2 isn’t a cold.”
    Colds, in most, don’t. Nor do GI bugs. COVID doesn’t either IN MOST.

    “Masks are significantly more effective in preventing infectious people (who wear them) from infecting other people, than they are in protecting uninfected people (who wear them) from becoming infected.”
    Masking decreases release of virus into air from infected persons. The best way to decrease one’s risk of becoming infected is for them to wear a mask, get vaccinated, live in a bubble, etc.

    “Yet I have a self-interest in you not being infected: if you become infected, you would then have a probability of wanting to claim and consume some of our limited health resources.”
    I would not utilize mechanical ventilation. The only other treatments that ‘kind of’ work are steroids, that I am tracking.
    I would never ask you to carry me, Don. Because I wouldn’t want to ‘burden you’. So stop burdening me with your ‘save everyone at all costs’ mentality.

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