A day before Mkayla Robinson took her last breath, Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi minimized COVID-19′s risk to children.
“If you look at those individuals under the age of 12, what you find is that it is very rare that kids under the age of 12 have anything other than the sniffles,” he said. “Does it happen from time to time? Sure it does. I believe we have had one fatality of an individual, maybe it could’ve been two — I think there’s three under the age of 18 at this time? Two?”
Mkayla, 13, is at least the fifth Mississippi child to die from COVID-19. Since the state’s schools reopened this month, more than 1,000 children have tested positive for coronavirus. Yet even with one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, Reeves refuses to issue a statewide mask mandate for schools.
This isn’t just a Mississippi problem. Nationwide, more than 1,900 children are hospitalized with COVID-19, the largest number since the pandemic began. Craven governors are aiding and abetting the highly transmissible Delta variant. In their unwillingness to order mask mandates in schools, they are neglecting many of their most vulnerable citizens — especially children too young to be vaccinated.
That includes Governor Charlie Baker who reiterated Monday that he’s “not considering changing the mask guidance at this time.” While Massachusetts has one of the nation’s highest rates of fully vaccinated residents at 65 percent, all 14 of its counties have a “high” or “substantial” risk for transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker map.
Massachusetts is now averaging about 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day.
With Massachusetts in “a dramatically different place than many other states across this country,” Baker said municipalities can make their own decisions about mask mandates. Last month, Acting Mayor Kim Janey said Boston’s public school students will be required to wear a mask when they return to classrooms in September. Numerous other cities and towns are also implementing mandates that the governor will not.
If I were given to cynicism, I might believe that with Baker mulling a possible 2022 run for a third term as governor, a statewide mask mandate unpopular with Republicans is not the hill on which he’s willing to let his political ambitions die.
At least he isn’t purposely getting in the way. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has threatened to withhold the pay of some school administrators who issue mask mandates. Meanwhile, the state’s Hillsborough Country Public Schools have about 6,000 students and more than 300 employees in isolation or quarantine. On Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court backed Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order to block school districts and other government institutions from implementing mask requirements. Some Texas school superintendents are ignoring it to protect students and staff.
These governors’ decisions run contrary to the wishes of most Americans. Nearly 70 percent favor school mask mandates, though that includes only 44 percent of Republicans.
Inevitably, the actions of these GOP governors mean children under 12 will get infected. Some will get sick, and some will die. That’s because these so-called leaders are beholden to the contemptible ideologies of a political party whose egregious notions of liberty and freedom are akin to a death cult.
We’ve seen it all before. After a gunman in 2012 shot and killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, many believed it would be a tipping point for gun reform. Surely, this slaughter of innocents would be addressed with swift legislative measures to ensure it could never happen again. Instead, it amplified this nation’s indifference to gun violence, and especially the welfare of its children who depend on adults to do the right thing.
That’s what is happening as governors sit on their hands while this pandemic’s most contagious variant is affecting kids at alarming rates. And as usual, Black and brown children will disproportionately bear the greatest weight of this failure, as they have already accounted for most childhood COVID deaths, according to the CDC.
Described by her band teacher as “the perfect student,” Mkayla died only days after starting the eighth grade. As more children return to schools without mask mandates, there will be similarly catastrophic outcomes. Ronald Wilbon, a pastor and Mkayla’s cousin, told Mississippi Today, “We’re two weeks into school, and we already have babies dying.”
From the beginning, many Republicans spurred by Donald Trump infested this pandemic and mask usage with politics; in many ways, the former president’s rhetoric has been the most deadly COVID-19 variant. As a grim result, more “babies” will be lost, and a nation that too often refuses to protect its children again risks abandoning both its conscience and future.