Rantz: Students told to wear mask while chewing lunch, district cites nonexistent guidance

Sep 21, 2021, 7:14 PM | Updated: Sep 22, 2021, 5:38 am
mask, lunch...
Tacoma's Geiger Montessori School demands its elementary students chew and swallow their lunch with their mask on while in the cafeteria. It is not a position founded in science or data. This is Principal Neil O’Brien. (Photo: Tacoma Public Schools/Facebook)
(Photo: Tacoma Public Schools/Facebook)

Tacoma’s Geiger Montessori School demanded elementary students chew and swallow their lunch with their mask on while in the cafeteria. The district backed the policy by citing guidance that doesn’t exist. It actually says masks shouldn’t be worn while eating lunch.

Principal Neil O’Brien emailed parents four days after the first day of school with an update on COVID policies at Geiger. He said students must wear their masks during lunch in the cafeteria and, despite social distancing and outstanding ventilation, they must put the mask back up to chew and swallow their food.

At least one parent is complaining. He told the principal that this rule is “insane” and demanded it be reconsidered. While the principal isn’t returning the father’s email, the district finally admitted the school was overzealous in the rule.

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Masks on while eating?

The email caught Michael off guard. He has a kid enrolled at Geiger.

Principal O’Brien told parents that students must wear masks during lunch. But the specificity of when it was necessary seemed overbroad and wholly unnecessary. The email reads:

Yes. Children should wear masks during lunch. They can lower it to take a bite or a drink, and raise it to chew, swallow, or talk. Our cafeteria has a fantastic airflow system and children are spaced apart AND when over a hundred of them are in one large room (the cafeteria and gym combined) we need to treat lunchtime as a dangerous time for all. Children need to continue to wear their masks during lunch.

Why would children — who are in the demographic least negatively impacted by COVID — need to wear a mask to chew and swallow? This isn’t a requirement anywhere.

The principal notes the room is large and has a “fantastic airflow system.” The kids are even “spaced apart.” It’s not, as the principal notes, a “dangerous time for all.”

District references guidance that doesn’t exist, says the opposite

Michael tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that he reached out to the principal with his concerns. He never heard back. He did, however, hear from Shallae Hobbs, Tacoma Public Schools’ administrator of health services.

Using local and national guidelines, Hobbs explained that the policy is based on sound science. In an email to Michael, she links to several documents to back up the chewing and swallowing mask policy. But none of the advice appears anywhere in the resources she provided.

Hobbs claims “children are encouraged to put there [sic] mask back on when not eating or drinking as outlined in the CDC resource document outline in the K-12 Schools guidance.” She even cites page 6 as the source.

But neither page 6 nor any page in the document addresses masks while chewing and swallowing. That page only suggests you provide social distancing “for all students when masks cannot be worn, such as when eating lunch.” In other words, the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the exact opposite of what she claims.

It gets more absurd

Hobbs also cites the “food service and school meals section” in guidance from the CDC. Again, there’s not even a mention of eating lunch. The focus is on social distancing during lunch.

She also cites local guidance from the state Department of Health.

None of the documents reference masking when chewing. It includes the same guidance from the CDC, indicating it’s not feasible to wear a mask while eating lunch.

Hobbs inexplicably cites the exemptions section from a Secretary of Health order. She must not have read it. It explicitly says you do not have to wear a mask “while engaged in the act of eating or drinking.”

Despite citing guidance that doesn’t exist — indeed, it says the opposite of what she claims — Hobbs concludes that “eating can be a high risk activity as masks are removed and in some instances students are within 6 feet, re-masking when not actively engaged in eating or drinking can help add another layer of protection.”

After delays and questions, the district walks back policy

It’s hard to imagine how the principal and the district’s administrator of health services so spectacularly misread the guidance.

When asked about the policy, it took a Tacoma Public Schools spokesperson six days and five emails to sort out an answer. Where did this policy come from? In what science or data is it based?

“The standard originally set at Geiger was established in good faith as an interpretation of health department guidance to wear masks when ‘actively eating,'” the spokesperson told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “In checking with the health department, that standard goes beyond their intent. We won’t discipline any students for not wearing their masks between bites. And this is not the guidance being used at other schools.”

But was the policy actually changed and parents informed? The spokesperson won’t explain. A day before sending me the statement, the principal sent a community email with updated COVID policies. It did not address this.

Good faith policy?

I don’t doubt the principal established the policy in good faith. But it’s not about good faith or bad faith.

The policy shows an extraordinary level of incompetence to misread guidance so poorly. Their takeaway was the opposite of what was written, and the school and district used it to justify their absurd masking-while-masticating policy.

Moreover, this is the kind of policy one can only get if you far overstate the threat of COVID and kids. Children rarely die or get seriously ill from COVID. That’s a good thing. But this policy shows an unhealthy level of fear from an adult who should be more responsible in front of kids.

If the intent is to scare the kids to death, this could likely be viewed as a success. But our goal shouldn’t be to be hysterical. It should be to promote responsible and reasonable mitigation policies. This doesn’t qualify.

Did you like this opinion piece? Then listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Parler, and like me on Facebook

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Rantz: Students told to wear mask while chewing lunch, district cites nonexistent guidance