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What happened to the safety hawks?

I’m not used to this. I don’t know if it means I’m getting old or if we’ve simply entered a new and unfamiliar era.

In my lifetime, decisions regarding children seemed always to be about safety first. And the term “safety” has taken on new dimensions over the decades.


In my childhood and teen years, for example, you wore a helmet if you rode a motorcycle. It was unheard-of to see any type of head protection on a bicycle rider. Frankly, if such a thing had been demanded of us, it would’ve come off the second we were out of sight of the house.


Gradually, the precaution has gained acceptance, to the degree that most kids (and grownups) today understand appropriate head protection as the requirement for biking. The number of lives and disabilities that have been saved as a result are incalculable.


Unattended children playing outside in the neighborhood on summer evenings have gone the way of the corner phone booth. They’re rarely, if ever, seen without an accompanying adult.

Somewhere along the way, the “be home when the streetlights come on” tradition died in the face of serious and real dangers that exist today, just as they did when I was a child.


But later generations of parents had access to more data, more horror stories spreading on a vastly increasing web of information sources, and acted accordingly.


School buildings that were, for most of my life, open to parents, taxpayers, or practically anyone that wanted to show up and observe today’s education process as long as you exercised the courtesy of checking in at the front office, are now well-secured fortresses.

They’re practically as hard to access as the Honeywell plant north of Belton, and rightfully so. What our schools protect is certainly more valuable than the “non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons,” Honeywell boasts of. Frankly, who really cares about getting inside Honeywell if you’re not collecting a paycheck there? I guess some might, but the chances of anyone actually doing measurable harm pale in comparison to the harm done by failing to protect our kids.


Even high school football, high school football, for Pete’s sake, has become the target of an increasing number of health professionals and parents who have begun to question if the benefits and traditions of those glorious Friday nights are worth the risk.


Which brings us to this week.


I don’t even have to say it, do I?


The elected boards of not one, but both of our local school districts had opportunities to exercise true courage in response to actual current data showing the Delta variant of COVID-19 (which, by the way, has made a name for our state, and not a good one) is negatively affecting children in numbers not seen in the original virus.


And half of these kids – those 11 and under – aren’t even eligible for the vaccine.


By mandating mask-wearing in the classroom for just the first month, district administrators would have the opportunity to analyze the effect of a return to the classroom in light of this new variant, and others to come, in order to recommend a path forward that would afford the greatest opportunity for (what’s that word?) safety moving forward. Safety. The consideration that has led to millions of dollars of bond money for facilities, for staff background checks, for athletic equipment.


To be sure, on each board there were voices of reason on this topic. Voices that were politely outvoted by members more concerned about representing what they believe to be (and likely are) the numerical “majority” of their constitutents.


But if that’s what we elected school board members for – to act on straw-poll results – we wouldn’t need them, especially in today’s high-tech world.


We put them in place to analyze the data, and know more than we do on issues related to all aspects of the education and safety of our kids at school.


We put them in place to make, at times, unpopular choices based on their special attention to that age group’s interests despite the potential for opposition from some in the community.

And we put them in place to take personal responsibility for those decisions if they prove to be short-sighted, ill-conceived or just plain careless.


This one isn’t about wasted tax money. It’s not about hiring the wrong administrator or selecting a subpar vendor. Those are the typical accountability challenges these board members face.


This time, it’s about lives. Young lives. Unvaccinated young lives. A month from now we’ll know if the dice roll that kept these folks on the right side of the “majority” also has managed to keep our kids safe in the face of data and professional advice that it might not.


Look, it’s hard to swim against the current. On one level, I can’t blame these people that didn’t sign up for the ugly phone calls and online abuse that would’ve come with the “wrong” vote on this issue.


But swimming against that current and taking a measure of heat is nothing compared to the pain that would come if just one child suffers serious illness or worse in the next month, because of an unsafe policy determined at the Board level.

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