Dr. Gary Wheeler at Little Rock City Hall (file photo)

School starts in a couple of weeks, and with COVID-19 infection numbers, mask policies and legislative action/inaction still so hard to predict, Arkansas parents are rightfully losing their shit. Will a court challenge or an as-yet hypothetical special session be able to reverse our state’s sadistic ban on mask mandates in schools? Or will we have to send our littles into the classroom knowing that Arkansas public schools are legally bound to defy expert advice from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who both say masking students is simply non-negotiable if we want to keep them safe?

Dr. Gary Wheeler, a retired pediatrician and expert in infectious disease who served as president of the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has the chops here. He dedicated his career to keeping children healthy, and now, in retirement, he still has skin in the game. A besotted grandfather and key member of the Arkansas AAP, Wheeler keeps a close eye on case numbers, school policies and vaccination rates.

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If nothing changes and Arkansas public schools are not allowed to mandate masks, what should parents do? Wheeler said that parents should look for three things in their children’s schools:

  • Masking by the vast majority of people there, both adults and children
  • School leaders who embrace and promote masking in every possible way
  • Zero tolerance for any bullying of mask wearers

With rising numbers of Arkansans getting vaccinated in recent weeks and some key attitude changes that have people rethinking and embracing masks in public spaces, Wheeler said he’s optimistic that most schools will deliver on these three components, regardless of what happens with the state’s ban on mask mandates in public schools.

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Bullying is still a concern, though. Wheeler said he worries about the rogue teacher or principal who thinks COVID-19 is a hoax and makes fun of teachers and students who mask up.

“If that did happen, that would be a school I would want to take my kid out of,” Wheeler said.

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What if there are no other public schools you can switch to that meet these three requirements and no money for a private school with a masking rule?

In-person school is best for children, who need the social interaction and hands-on instruction they can’t get behind a computer screen. But if your only choice is a school where precautions aren’t in place to prevent COVID-19 infection, you might be out of luck, Wheeler concedes. “At that point parents are left with a poor alternative, which is online school. That might be something you have to do.”

Pandemic numbers will likely plateau soon, and as conditions change, parents will need some flexibility. Wheeler said he does not like the idea of parents having to commit to either online or in-person school for the entire 2021-2022 school year, and hopes school districts with such requirements will relax them.

“You’re either in or you’re out? I don’t like that,” Wheeler said.

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Wheeler said he expects to see numbers plateau in October, or possibly sooner. Some parents may opt to hold off on in-person school until then. And the Arkansas Department of Education might consider delaying the start of the school year until the current surge eases.

Ultimately, Wheeler said, there’s no sure-fire way to keep kids safe from COVID-19, or from other everyday dangers.

“I think for parents who are facing these decisions there is no risk-free life. If you drive your kids to school there’s risk in that. There is a risk that COVID-19 could affect your child.”

While the pandemic is something to take seriously, most young people who get sick tend to recover well, he said. Some don’t.

“That happens with flu, measles, pertussis. The risks are so low that the benefits of going to school outweigh them if people get behind masking.”

His own granddaughter will be heading off to preschool soon, with a mask on, of course.

What about disinfecting classrooms and keeping hands sanitized? Those are fine things to do, Wheeler said, but aren’t at the top of the list of safety measures when it comes to COVID-19.

“Parents are sometimes distracted by things that are not that important,” he said. “Masks and ventilation are the two top things parents should be concerned about.”