Dear Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education:

Thank you for the job you do for our local school system and our students. Thank you for prioritizing in-person education over the past school year. I recognize that decision-making is difficult any time, but especially during a novel viral outbreak. I appreciate what you do and the time you take to listen to individuals from all sides of the mask debate. I would like to point out a few things about viruses (and masks).

DISCLAIMER

Like you, I’m no epidemiologist. However, I am a biology professor. Part of my job is to help students learn how to conduct research on viruses. Although our lab work is specifically on viruses that infect bacteria, I teach concepts that extend to all types of viruses. I do think I’m above average at sifting through and synthesizing information from scientific papers. Most of my training is in the field of ecology which is perfect because, towards the end of this letter, I’m going to ask you to think of our local schools as one big ecosystem.

I understand there are angry and passionate people on both sides of the mask dilemma. Passion usually means that people care. Some are claiming freedom for their children while others are claiming safety and health for their kids. Some are worried about government, or school system, control while others are worried about kids getting sick or even healthy kids getting sent home because of quarantine rules. Individuals in our community on all sides seem to be invested. This investment allows for more opportunities to have productive conversations. I’d rather have a community full of invested people than apathetic people. I do recognize, though, that there is a strong possibility that frustration and anger on all sides have been fueled by misinformation.

MISINFORMATION

Even though this letter isn’t really about vaccines, we should start here. Vaccine and mask misinformation stem from the same place—a mistrust of people. The seeds of mistrust are sown by TV personalities, social media posts, local radio stations, and many other sources.

Understanding basic biological concepts and weighing the evidence are the keys to distinguishing some of these lies from the truth.

To understand how the different types of vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 work, we would need to go back and look at what the field of genetics refers to as the “Central Dogma.” In our cells, segments of our DNA, called genes, go through a process where they transcribe into messenger RNA (mRNA) , which is then used as instructions to synthesize a particular protein. You may recognize that term “mRNA.” Two of our most effective vaccines are full of these mRNA instructions for how to build a protein that will train our immune system. Here is a great primer on how the approved vaccines, especially the mRNA type, work. I know I just said that the focus of this letter was not about the vaccines but thinking about genes and proteins excite me.

It’s true that masks can be uncomfortable and annoying. They make it hard to carry on conversations with others. Just because we’d rather not wear them does not make them ineffective at decreasing the transmission of this virus.

Here’s what I would say to you or anyone in the community in response to this misinformation:

1. Unvaccinated individuals as well as those who choose not to wear a mask are not to blame for this pandemic (see Israel) and should not get labeled as unloving or uncaring.

2. Vaccinated individuals as well as those who choose to wear a mask are not “sheep.” Those who have been vaccinated are not responsible for shedding any poison to others, and those who wear masks are not in danger of dying from carbon dioxide.

3. Masks have nothing to do with government control.

4. Individuals who have recovered from COVID-19, more than likely, have antibodies. This natural immunity helps all of us in the long run.

5. Vaccines are vaccines. They are not a type of genetic therapy. Vaccinated individuals have not had their DNA manipulated. If you understand the “Central Dogma,” then you understand that when mRNA is injected, it cannot make or mutate DNA.

6. It’s reckless to make the claim that “vaccines don’t work.” Vaccines work great. Just because breakthrough infections happen does not mean they don’t work. They are intended to decrease hospitalizations and deaths.

7. It’s not accurate to claim that masks don’t work simply because you know someone who wore a mask and still got sick. I recognize that you can find studies that support whatever opinion you happen to have at any given moment, but solid research exists that shows the effectiveness of masks. For example, this study showed that masks reduced the number of new infections in one community by 45 percent. However, this review states that masks are most effective at reducing the spread of a virus when compliance is high.

8. Masks alone will not end this pandemic in Iredell County. In fact, this school modeling tool that was created by two researchers at the University of Washington shows that in addition to masks, you would need high vaccination uptake + distancing + regular rapid testing + improved ventilation to keep school cases low. However, with the Delta variant, masks in schools have to be the starting point.

Even though we may not be able to keep school cases low, masks will help us keep in-school transmission low. That is what Iredell-Statesville Schools prided itself in last year—the fact that the category labeled “cases related to secondary spread within schools” was nearly always less than 1% per week.

Let’s now zoom out and look at the SARS-CoV-2 virus (especially the Delta variant) through an ecological lens. This is where I want you to imagine Iredell-Statesville Schools as one big ecosystem. The argument that “if masks work for your kid, then you do you and let me take care of my kid” is a flawed argument. It assumes individuals, or students in our ecosystem scenario, go to school in isolation. One of the rules of ecology is that nothing in nature exists in isolation. Students in each classroom in each school certainly do not exist in isolation.

Remember, masks are not 100% effective, but they are one tool to decrease transmission. Your actions have an impact on the entire community, especially when virus particles are involved.

VIRAL BEHAVIOR

Viruses are small protein shells with tiny pieces of genetic information (DNA or RNA). Everything about how a virus infects, and thus reproduces, relies on this genetic information.

Because viruses reproduce so fast, the genetic material has the potential to change rapidly. We
call these changes in the genetic code mutations.

So, we have established that the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutates. The more infections you have in an ecosystem, the better chance that “fit” variants get transmitted. Here’s what you, as a board, need to remember when people ask the question “Why bother with masks?”

Increased infections = high rate of viral evolution = increased chance of fit variants circulating in our ecosystem

The great news is that the converse is also true.

Decreased infections = low rate of viral evolution = decreased chance of fit variants circulating in our ecosystem

How do we decrease infections in our school ecosystem? We encourage vaccinations and require masks to be worn indoors. You have the opportunity to directly help with decreasing infections.

VIRAL PANDEMICS and ECOLOGICAL POPULATIONS

To understand how this Delta variant is different (and dangerous) we need to look one last time from an ecological perspective. At the outset of this pandemic, one critical disease variable that experts tried to track was R0 (pronounced “r-naught”), which is the basic reproduction rate for a disease. Basically, R0 is the potential number of secondary cases one case could produce at the beginning of an outbreak in a completely susceptible (healthy, but not immune) population.

Here’s a student activity that uses modeling and shows how diseases with different values can spread through a human population. I found it interesting to compare seasonal influenza, measles, and SARS-CoV-2 using this simulator. You should try it out when you have time.

Seasonal influenza has an R0 value between 1-2. On the other end of the spectrum, the R0 value of measles lies between 12-18. Last year’s SARS-CoV-2 had an estimated R0 of 3. The R0 of the Delta variant seems to be between 6-9, closer to measles on the scale. That’s scary, and it certainly explains why it is rapidly ripping through communities, including our own. Feel free to read this article for more information on how to take into account individuals that have immunity to determine how contagious Delta may actually be in our community.

I understand that some have a hard time trusting policy makers and/or government officials, but I ask each of you to learn from our neighboring school systems who have had to pivot away from a mask-optional policy and make masks mandatory. I ask you to trust our local hospitals and healthcare workers when they say that they are strained and out of space. You still have the chance to be proactive rather than reactive or worse, inactive.

As board members, you are charged with acting in the best interest of our students and their education. I know we all agree that having students in the classroom is more beneficial than having them quarantined at home. The best way to protect our local school ecosystem is to have all students, staff, and faculty in masks while they are indoors. It won’t be this way forever, but right now this is our way forward.

Your partner in education,

Parks Collins

Editor’s Note: Parks Collins has three children who are enrolled in Iredell-Statesville Schools.

12 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education about protecting our students and I-SS employees from COVID-19

  1. This is a well thought out explanation as to why masks should be mandatory in schools. School officials have an obligation to keep children safe. Wearing masks is a way to mitigate the spread of Covid. The science supports masks.

  2. Extremely well written article. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Unfortunately, ISS BOE seems to lack the education required to make these decisions effectively. So, I hope this article provides them clarity with the appropriate data.

  3. The School Board neglected it’s fiduciary duty to the children by putting the decision to a popularity vote instead of following the data, science, and expert recommendations. Crowd sourcing is ok for picking a restaurant, but not for safety and health decisions. The mitigation of using masks is the only protection our kids too young to vaccinate have available. To be meaningful it can’t be optional as the mask protects you from the person wearing it. You can call it choice, but it’s actually a list of chance for my child. These board members should be ashamed.

  4. Elaine W Watts says:

    Excellent information and much appreciated. It is so sad that so many have made a virus into a political issue.

  5. Getting Covid-19 if you are a healthy person, especially under 40 years of age, is not a death sentence. Covid-19 is not the Bubonic Plague nor is it the Spanish Flu. Nations such as Sweden that protected the elderly and the most vulnerable let Covid-19 run its course through their society and reached herd immunity, all without needlessly destroying their economy. They didn’t put Covid-19 positive individuals in nursing homes filled with the most vulnerable populations, as did Democrat governors and mayors here in the U.S.

    Masks can help some, but they can also provide a false sense of security. It is important to understand their extreme limitations. Putting a mask on is not the same as wearing a space suit. All they do is keep any “cloud” of virus particles around a Covid-19 positive person smaller than it would be otherwise by slowing down the velocity of their expulsions. That’s it. Fans, HVAC systems, and even people talking loudly can spread that cloud far and wide in any room, and still deliver a viral load to an unsuspecting recipient.

    I applaud ISS for navigating this pandemic as best they could. The changing data, guidelines, and even the outright lies by the CDC and Dr. Fauci early on regarding the efficacy of masks played a big part in many people not trusting anything they say — ever. The one thing you never do to the American people is lie to them. Right now, until this Delta variant subsides, wearing masks unfortunately might be the right thing to do, even if at the end of the day, they are only about 20% effective.

    Yes, some studies and simulations say they are more effective than that, but those are idealized and we live in the real world, where both adults and kids will not wear them properly 100% of the time. I’ve even seen people in Walmart pull them down off of their noses so they could sneeze or cough, not exactly their ideal use case.

    • Ross, thank you for commenting and for your insight. I think you make some really great and valid points. I especially like your point that masks provide a false sense of security because of their limitations. I would definitely agree with you that masks plus other things are needed, especially while we deal with Delta (see #8 in the letter).

      I, too, would applaud ISS for how things were handled last school year. They realized that bringing students back in-person was important. I am so glad the elementary students were brought back so quickly. The teachers and administrators were the real champions last year having to navigate both in-person and virtual. This year, however, I think the board of education has failed everyone and been very neglectful. Papers and guidance show that masks reduce transmission (which is the concern; see “Viral Behavior” above) even if it is 20% effective. That’s something. You’re right though, this hinges on whether individuals where them properly. Thanks again for reading and thinking through this with all of us.

    • There is a big difference between changing your stance on masks when new evidence or data becomes available and lying. For some reason the right has chosen Dr. Fauci as their boogeyman. A little fact checking is all you have to do to see the smear campaign against one of the leading experts in virology we’ve ever had. This should not be a right or left thing; it should be a common sense thing. Are we going to stop wearing seatbelts because sometimes people die in car accidents while wearing them? Should LEOs stop wearing bulletproof vests because they don’t protect the noggin? Sometimes, as a society, we have to make small sacrifices to our freedoms to keep others safe. Just ask any military personnel, they lay down life for it, and if they are told to wear a mask and a tutu they wear it without crying about freedom. Sweden is far from done with COVID. Misinformation is our biggest hurdle in beating this virus. Just like the OP said. People believe what someone posts on Facebook over non partisan experts, like the one about Fauci lying, you have to ask which one benefits from lying, which has more to lose from lying? A doctor or a politician. They both took oaths, who is more likely to keep their oath?

  6. Janice Sigmon says:

    Well thought out & valid points. Masks are aggravating, BUT wouldn’t you rather you, your child or family members be wearing a mask than struggling to get each breath, being on ventilator or dying? An ounce of prevention = pounds of trying to recover

  7. Very well written article. Mask mandates are must, to keep our kids & teachers safe. School board should do mask mandates for school & strict covid guidelines for school to follow. Everyday very scared in sending kid to school.

  8. Thank you, Parks, for this well thought out and brave letter. These are difficult times and the naysayers are hard to understand. I can’t understand the mentality of people who don’t want to be “the helpers” as Mr. Rogers would say and try to get on the other side of this pandemic. I am not a scientist but I know that it takes hypotheses to get to the answers that ultimately lead to solutions and then to new ways of doing things. It is so odd to me that when the penicillin was discovered through mold and the small pox vaccine was discovered through inhaling cow pox and eventually injecting into egg yolks that Americans did not react in this way trying to discredit science. In the beginning of this pandemic, scientist discovered that masks were helpful after all in keeping the spread down. Americans were not lied to as some would have you think. I am not a scientist but I respect and appreciate all they have done for us and I very much appreciate the hard work of our health department and the CDC working together to help us stay safe. I will listen to them and do all I can to be one of the ones who helps instead of causing harm. That is the least all of us can do.

  9. Hilary McGraw says:

    This OpEd was very good and much appreciated because it provided factual information in a unbiased manner. Sadly, as long as there continues to be misinformation, disinformation and downright falsehoods disseminated to the public (i.e. Sweden reaching herd immunity, Democrat governors and mayors filling nursing homes with at-risk patients, the CDC and Dr. Fauci lying to the American people, etc.), there will be disagreement on how a governing body responds to this pandemic.

  10. Well done sir! As an ICU-RN dealing with this pandemic on the Frontlines, I applaud and thank you! 👏 👏 👏
    This should be printed and circulated to every mailbox in the county!

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