How a nonprofit backs parents in nationwide push for school mask mandates

'When we get politicians out of the way, school administrators and families know what they need,' advocate says
By: | September 30, 2021
Kim Hagood and her son, who is too young to get vaccinated, are adamant about wearing masks.Kim Hagood and her son, Blake, who is too young to get vaccinated, are adamant about wearing masks.

Kim Hagood estimates about two in 10 students in her son’s central Alabama school district regularly wear their masks. One of those is her son.

Hagood says she is vaccinated but has some underlying medical conditions that could put her at higher risk of a problematic COVID infection. Her 11-year-old son, who learned virtually all through the 2020-21 school year, is not yet eligible for the vaccine.

“In Alabama last year, we had more deaths than births for the first time in history,” Hagood says. “I’ve had family and friends who have gotten COVID—one-third of them have passed away, another third have been fine and the other third are long-haulers.”

Hagood had hoped her local Trussville City School District would have offered virtual instruction or a mask mandate this year but it has done neither. Within the last few weeks, she and a group of community members, including local physicians and pediatricians, have written letters to the school board urging them to follow the safety guidelines issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The group is also encouraging the district to form a community COVID task force, to ramp up COVID testing in schools and to be more transparent in health-related communications.

“COVID does cause pediatric disease and it’s very unpredictable,” she says. “But, on a human level, I also understand people’s hesitancy with the vaccine—I completely understand that. But mask up, distance and sanitize—at least try those things.”

‘Families know what they need’

Parents like Hagood are now getting guidance and other resources from ParentsTogether, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that formed last year to support families contending with COVID and its vast disruptions.

Eight states have banned schools administrators from mandating masks in classrooms while another 25 states have not enacted any mask requirements, says Bethany Robertson, co-founder of ParentsTogether, which has connected with about 2.5 million over the last year.

“We’re hearing from lots of people who are feeling so nervous about having kids back in class,” Robertson says. “When it became clear this was becoming a politicized issue, we felt it was important to give a voice to parents who support the CDC’s guidelines.

Rather than wading into local fights over masking, ParentsTogether has developed a toolkit to guide parents in advocating for masks and other safety precautions as they engage with school boards, administrators, local journalists and other stakeholders.

The nonprofit also advises parents about what language to use when talking to their children about why the family has chosen to wear masks, particularly in communities where face coverings are not worn regularly and students may get singled out.

Roberston expects parents will become more and more active in the coming months, as they counter what she calls a “noisy minority” of people who oppose masks in schools.

“It’s become such a political issue instead of a health and safety issue,” Robertson says. “When we get politicians out of the way, school administrators and families know what they need.”