The Right to Choose

In late May 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order banning the state’s government entities—including public schools and universities—from requiring face masks. “Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts,” said Abbott in a statement. “We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up.”

Similarly, the CDC recently announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear masks or socially distance (within certain parameters). K–12 schools and higher education institutions are announcing the triumphant return to full-time, in-person learning for the 2021– 22 academic year. As more people get vaccinated and fewer new cases are reported, we’re seeing many COVID-related health policies and mandates being repealed.

Many people are rejoicing—and not without reason—that life is finally getting back to normal. Others, though, are expressing concern that it’s still not time to let our guards down completely.

As of June 2021, only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use on children ages 12 years and older; the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still restricted to those ages 18 and up. The vast majority of minors have yet to be vaccinated because they aren’t even eligible. Unless policies change or vaccine eligibility expands to include this group, come August, we run the risk of packing hundreds or thousands of unvaccinated individuals into environments in which many of the now-familiar COVID-19 safety protocols have been deliberately dismantled.

About two weeks ago, I dined in a restaurant for the first time since March 2020. I ordered my meal and then dipped into the bathroom to wash my hands before my food came. And as I was scrubbing, I noticed that familiar placard plastered above the mirror: “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.”

On one hand, knowing that sign exists and seeing it in a conspicuous spot does put me at ease. On the other hand, in a more practical sense, the sign plays absolutely zero role in an employee’s decision to sanitize appropriately before heading back into the kitchen to slap another burger together. No one needs to be reminded to wash their hands after using the bathroom. We know what we’re supposed to do; we’ve been doing it all our lives, sign or no sign.

By now, it’s largely the same thing with mask mandates. We’ve been doing this for more than a year. We know that masks significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, and both public and private institutions at federal, state, and local levels have continued to emphasize their importance. Awareness of the issue is common knowledge, even if the legal requirements and enforced penalties for not following them might be going away.

In Texas, no government or public official can legally mandate that you wear a mask. Nor can they make you wear oven mitts to pull a hot pan out of the oven, or safety goggles to operate power tools. But if you’re smart, you still do, because you’re aware of the consequences.

Gov. Abbott is right that Texans (and Americans at large) should have the liberty to choose whether or not they wear masks. But part of the “liberty to choose” is accepting the responsibility to make the most prudent choice—the one that all evidence suggests will keep you, your loved ones, and your community safe.

This undercurrent of vigilance and responsibility holds especially true for K–12 campus settings, in which it seems the legal requirements for safeguards are being removed before the cavalry has had the chance to arrive.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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