Kathryn Applegate
 on October 01, 2021

What I Said about Masks at the School Board Meeting

After a school board COVID policy effectively made masks optional, my husband and I immediately wrote to the principal about our concerns. I was invited to share them at the next board meeting, which happened last week.

Student holds mask with school bag

After homeschooling our kids last year, my husband and I decided to send them back to school this fall. COVID rates were down over the summer, and we were all excited to return to the Christian school community we’ve grown to love over the past six years. Back to friends! Back to teachers! Back to hot lunch, art, music, library, recess! And sadly, as fall drew closer, back to COVID-19 concerns.

As COVID numbers began to soar again in August, we prepared our kids for the reality that they might be in the minority of students wearing a mask. Masks weren’t required this year. But the Friday before classes were to begin, our county health department issued a public health order for all educational institutions. It requires universal masking for prekindergarten through sixth grade students and staff working with them. We breathed a prayer of thanks.

The school board met that Sunday night. After hours of deliberation, they emailed out a new policy. Masks would be required. But, the policy assured, “we will accept a parent’s written representation that your child cannot medically tolerate a face covering.”

Which effectively made masks optional.

My husband and I immediately wrote to the principal about our concerns. I was invited to share them at the next board meeting, which happened last week.

The board chair set a positive tone in his opening prayer and comments. I was grateful for this, but I also felt scared and alone. In a room of two dozen people, only I and one other person wore a mask, despite the CDC recommendation that everyone in areas of high transmission should wear a mask in public places, even if they are fully vaccinated.

Four parents shared how grateful they are that the board allowed parents to decide what’s best for their kids. One mom spoke about how dangerous and ineffective masks are. One dad said mask recommendations are “political” and COVID isn’t a threat to our kids. Another parent urged the board to allow vaccine exemptions “without scrutiny” if the health department mandates them. “Stay the course,” he urged.

Two of us shared concerns about the school’s current policy and posture toward public health guidance. The other parent voiced his confusion and disappointment. He marveled that people have decided to send their kids to our school not because they’ll receive an exceptional Christian education, but because they don’t have to wear a mask.

Below is what I said at the school board meeting.

Well done revising our school’s COVID-19 policy after the Kent County Health Department’s public health order came out. My husband and I were encouraged by your decision to require masks for Pre-K through 6th grade students and for faculty and staff working with them in such circumstances in which physical distancing is not possible.

Unfortunately, what worked well for the school last year may not work as well this year. The situation is different in two ways. First, the Delta variant is much more contagious than earlier strains, meaning more people can get infected with less exposure. Second, this year parents are allowed to opt their children out of wearing masks without a doctor’s note. As of September 2, at least a quarter of students in both of my kids’ classes had officially opted out. The number appeared even higher when I was in the building recently.

Is COVID-19 still a dangerous threat?

Absolutely, yes. 1 in 500 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19. That’s over 680,000 lives lost. Many more are living with long-term damage to lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other organs. “Long COVID” affects 10-30% of adults.

Children are much less likely than adults to have severe disease. I am not here to argue that our kids are in grave danger. Still, COVID can be serious for some kids, and we should do all we can to protect them. 10% or more of kids who get COVID have long-lasting symptoms like fatigue and brain fog that can affect school performance.

The bigger risk is that kids can spread the virus to others in the community who may be more vulnerable. People with cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, dementia, and Down syndrome are at higher risk. So are pregnant women. I wonder if you know anyone with these risk factors?

COVID is still a threat here. Kent County’s COVID community transmission risk is still high. (Readers, you can check your own county’s risk level on the CDC website.)

Are masks and vaccines safe and effective ways to mitigate the risk?

Absolutely, yes. It is clear that not everyone in our community agrees. I am happy to talk about the science of masks and vaccines. I am a biologist and I work for an organization called BioLogos that has produced a ton of resources on COVID over the past 18 months. Check out, for example, our article Should Christians get vaccinated?

In my experience, people don’t actually change their minds by hearing a bunch of scientific information. All of us, unless we are top experts in a field, have to decide who to trust. Obviously, only God is fully trustworthy and infallible, but some people are more trustworthy than others. Where do you get your information?

When it comes to COVID-19, I look to the top, to a scientist and physician named Francis Collins, who founded the organization I work for. He is the head of the National Institutes of Health. He is Anthony Fauci’s boss. And he is a faithful Christian believer who has toiled endlessly since the pandemic began to help guide our nation’s response. You might check out the video NIH Director Francis Collins on the Quest for a Cure.

When the top scientist in our country, whom I know personally to be a man of faith and good character, says that masks and vaccines are safe and effective, I believe him.

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbor.

Jesus summed up the law in just two commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

All people are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 9:5-6). This is a major motivator for Christians to care for the unborn, the poor, the elderly, or anyone else who is vulnerable.

Loving your neighbor means counting others more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2:3). It means serving one another and sacrificing for one another.

Christian freedom does not mean demanding our rights. We are free, but for what? The Apostle Paul says we are free to lay down our rights and serve our neighbor (Galatians 5:13-15, 1 Corinthians 9:19).

Sacrificing in small ways makes us into the kind of people who can sacrifice in bigger ways. It makes us more like Jesus, who gave himself up for us.

Wearing a small piece of cloth across our face is not too high a price to lower the risk of suffering and even death for our brothers and sisters.

So what am I asking you to do?

With this in mind, I urge the administration and board to do three things. First, update your COVID-19 policy to align with the public health order. Require a doctor’s note for kids to opt out of wearing a mask. Have students and staff consistently wear masks any time they are in the building.

Second, encourage those in our community who are eligible to get vaccinated. Start now with staff and middle schoolers, and lay the groundwork for when younger kids are eligible later this fall.

Third, start spreading a positive message about why we are doing what we are doing. Love your neighbor, wear a mask. Love your neighbor, get the shot. It’s not political, it’s not tribal. This is who we are as Christians: we love and we sacrifice for our brothers and sisters.

Thank you.

It doesn’t appear that anything will change at our kids’ school as a result of the meeting. Most parents seem to like things the way they are, and the school is unlikely to face consequences for their noncompliance. The county health department appears unable to enforce their own order. They are overwhelmed. It is hard for the health director to do his job when people try to run him off the road and shout expletives at him. (Dr. London, I am praying for you and your family.)

Even though nothing may change, I still feel the burden to speak truth and encourage others to do the same. As a wise theologian has pointed out, the secular world presupposes that “consequences measure the moral worth of an action—that only consequences count.” But, he went on to say, “Jesus Christ, the Messiah, did the right thing, regardless of consequences. He did not think the moral worth of an action was determined by results. He simply did the right thing.” So we should do the right things too, even when we are in a minority. We can wear masks, get vaccinated, and encourage others to do the same. Schools and churches can take a courageous stance, knowing they will get backlash, in order to protect vulnerable people in their communities.

For my brothers and sisters in Christ who are unconvinced of the seriousness of the pandemic, shake off the conspiracy theories and half-truths that so easily entangle. Learn how to spot fake science. Don’t fall for foolish claims that mask and vaccine mandates are a form of Christian persecution. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).

For all of us, I pray “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).

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About the author

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate

Kathryn Applegate is a former Program Director at BioLogos. While working on her PhD in computational cell biology at  Scripps Research (La Jolla, CA), she became passionate about building bridges between the church and the scientific community. In 2010, she joined the BioLogos staff where she has the privilege of writing, speaking, and working with a wide variety of scholars and educators to develop new science and faith resources. Kathryn co-edited with Jim Stump How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity Press, 2016). Among many other projects during her time at BioLogos, Kathryn most recently led the development of Integrate, a new science and faith curriculum for home educators and teachers at Christian schools. Kathryn and her family enjoy exploring the beaches and state parks of Michigan and are helping to plant a new PCA church in Grand Rapids.