Jack Ciattarelli and Toms River: Perfect Together

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At Tuesday night’s debate, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jack Ciattarelli doubled down on his belief that the government has no right to force anyone to wear a mask.

Mr. Ciattarelli, meet Tom’s River.

Oh, wait, you already did. How’s that working out for you?

For those of you playing catch-up, Toms River Public Schools, one of New Jersey’s largest districts, is enduring a district-wide COVID-19 outbreak. Currently about 900 students (the district first cited 1,100) and 59 teachers are in quarantine due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus. This is the district where Ciattarelli rallied with parents last August who were protesting forced masking of their kids.

At the school board meeting that evening he pronounced, “we are still a democracy and in a democracy parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit,” adding, “the data’s pretty clear. Masks inhibit learning. They can have an adverse effect on the intellectual and emotional development of the child.” He formally asked the board to “do everything in its power” to protect Toms River parents’ “democratic right” to “not be forced to put a mask on their children.”

The school board was ready to comply, having already composed a letter urging Murphy to rescind the mask mandate in schools. In another effort to undermine the mandate, the superintendent made masks optional in classrooms without air-conditioning and classrooms where the temperature was higher than 75 degrees, relying on an “excessive heat” exception in the Murphy mandate. 

“Cold classrooms you have to wear it, but other teachers, you’ll have it down and they won’t even say anything,” reported student Femi Adekunle.

“I mean sometimes I walk into school without a mask because I don’t have one and they don’t say anything,” said student Lexa Nuara.

“None of it is good,” said Scott Campbell, president of the Toms River Education Association, the district’s teachers union. “There is no answer to this. We are finding that if a kid gets it, three or four or more get it.”

This gubernatorial contest is not one where you have to search for differences among candidates. In the educational arena alone, Murphy and Ciatarelli have opposing views on everything from school funding to whether we should teach kids about systemic racism. 

Yet all we’re hearing about are masks. That’s okay: we all yearn for the before-times when going grocery shopping didn’t involve looping a strip of cloth around the bottom half of one’s face. 

But the truth is that schools adhering to mask mandates are having fewer COVID outbreaks* than schools like Toms River, even as Ciattarelli’s campaign website says parents should have the option to let kids leave their masks home, even as children–not many but some–get really sick from COVID, like my fellow education writer Conor Williams’ kid:

There’s no lack of educational topics to bicker with Murphy about: ding him on his submission to the wonts of teacher union leaders, his opposition to public school choice, his habit of picking people like Lamont Repollet for the state’s top education post despite a sordid history in Asbury Park. Now those are some issues voters can get energized about.

Masks? Not so much. It’s a lose-lose, Jack: for your campaign and for Toms River students.

 

*The research on the efficacy of mask-wearing in schools is mixed, partly because no one has done a randomized control trial of one cohort wearing masks in schools and aniother cohort going mask-less. Yet, according to Dr. Mike Smith, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine, “vaccination is number one, but masking is number two and is therefore the most effective way to reduce spread of COVID in settings where people [including children less than 12] cannot be vaccinated.”

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