Collective good, personal liberty clash over masks

Three students with masks talk

By Dezarae Churchill

Remember going to the supermarket in early March of last year? No one was wearing face masks and the select few who were stuck out like a sore thumb, almost being viewed as social pariahs.

A year and a half later, leaving the house with a face mask is as common as remembering your keys. However, there has been a grave amount of pushback in regard to mask mandates.

The debate lies in the obstruction of personal liberty and protecting the health of the collective good. As Americans, we often go on high alert when something appears to infringe upon our personal freedoms.

Public schools across the country are finding themselves amidst one of the largest debates of utilitarianism to date. Utilitarianism is a theory of ethics founded by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Stated simply, the theory says that an action is right if the results benefit the majority of people involved.

Is the health of the majority worth jeopardizing the liberty of the few? Utilitarianism would say, yes. I would have to agree. Wearing a mask is a temporary measure to ensure the safety of yourself and others.

To be a member of a society, one must be willing to prescribe to certain rules.

We understand that we must not drive our cars while intoxicated, as it is a danger to ourselves and others. There are those who choose to ignore these obligations; however, these situations often end in a deadly manner. 

Parents and school districts have been debating over the school’s ability to enforce mask mandates. President Biden has little control over the state’s educational policies, which is increasing pushback among heavily politically ran states. Therefore, we see a grave divide between schools advocating for and against their children to remain masked. 

I am a parent of a second-grader, and public schools in North Carolina have mandated masks for attendance to class. I believe masks should be mandated in public schools, allowing for the exception of those with medical reasons not to. The safety of the students and teachers should be the top priority. My son, Noah Robinson, age 7,  doesn’t seem to mind.

(Noah Robinson, second grade) Photo by Dezarae Churchill

“Wearing a mask is fine,” he said when I asked him about the mask mandate. “It doesn’t even bother me.”

His daily reality is a mask for seven hours, with a break for lunch and recess. 

“Would you rather wear a mask at school or be at home virtually learning?” I asked him. 

“I will always wear a mask,” he said. “I want to be at school with my friends!”

We see parental resistance in more right-leaning states. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida issued a statement to parents assuring them masks would not be a part of the dress code. This statement was challenged by the Florida Supreme Court, and it was ruled that DeSantis had overstepped his authority. 

According to National Geographic, 63% of parents support requiring unvaccinated students to wear a mask; the remaining percentage fall among those petitioning and protesting their child’s rights to go unmasked. 

Does wearing a mask prescribe to the notion of safety?  

Noah, in second grade, doesn’t seem to have an opinion: “I don’t feel safe, or unsafe, but we have to wear them.” 

Skeptical parents are worried about the long-term effects masking can have on their children, psychologically and physically. 

The country is clearly split on the matter as well. States like Illinois and New Jersey have implemented mask mandates for all schools, while schools in South Carolina and Texas have complete mask bans. 

Some parents are turning to violence in their frustrations of not feeling heard. Last week in California, notably one of the most Democratic states, there was an incident where a teacher (unnamed) was attacked after an argument with a parent regarding the mask mandate. He suffered several lacerations and had to be hospitalized, according to CNN.

The most important thing to remember is these children are grateful to be back in school with their teachers and friends. 

Quarantine and remote learning was a struggle for us all. We should give credit to the school system for doing the best they can to provide a safe and nurturing environment for our children.
Many of us do not have the option to sustain at-home learning for our children while maintaining our professional lives. 

While autonomy is always a priority, grace is a necessity while everyone continues to navigate through this time of uncertainty and change.