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Yes, masks are a big deal. 2 Bloomington-Normal parents explain why

Stephanie Chenard held hands with her son Desmond, 8, as they walked to his school in the San Francisco Bay Area last week. Later that evening the school district reported four positive COVID-19 cases in four different schools.
Beth LaBerge
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KQED
Parents and kids have been navigating pandemic restrictions for nearly two years.

Two Bloomington-Normal parents explain the very personal reality beneath the politics of masks.

Joanna Moist’s 4-year-old daughter was born with microtia, a congenital birth defect that causes hearing loss. The little girl has some hearing, but she relies heavily on lip reading. So, for the Moist family, living through nearly two years of mask mandates hasn’t been easy.

“Because I know there are just so many times that I know she can’t hear,” Moist said. Watching people’s mouths as they form words is “a huge piece of how she can communicate,” Moist explained of her daughter.

Moist, who lives in Bloomington, worries that her child feels isolated navigating a world of partially concealed faces. And she worries that the girl’s learning has been inhibited by the inability to read the lips of her teachers and classmates.

Moist said her daughter’s teacher sometimes wears a clear face shield, but not always. And when Moist asked her daughter's ballet teacher to wear a shield so the girl could follow along, the request was only honored once. The next lesson, it was back to a cloth mask. So Moist pulled her daughter out of class.

“I knew she wasn’t getting it. She wasn’t hearing what she was supposed to be doing,” Moist said. “Which just as a parent is infuriating because I want her to experience life. She deserves that.”

When she hears people claim that wearing a mask is no big deal for kids, it breaks her heart, Moist said. Because for her kid, it’s a very big deal.

Masks are also a big deal for Amy Baum’s family. Baum's daughter is too young to be vaccinated. Both Pfizer and BioNTech last week asked the FDA to expand authorization for their vaccine to kids under 5. But with both companies projecting that kids in that age group will need three doses of the vaccine for the highest levels of protection, Baum’s daughter is likely months away from being fully vaccinated.

So as of now, Baum sees masks as an essential layer of protection — not only for her daughter, but for people around them. Members of their extended family are immunocompromised, and a close friend has cancer. Baum said it’s important to her family to be compassionate around others’ health.

“It’s just been normal for us and hasn’t been an issue,” Baum said of wearing masks.

The issue for Baum came with an email from her daughter’s school district, abruptly reversing the decision to enforce mask mandates among staff and students. Tri-Valley Schools in Downs said a recent ruling by a judge in Sangamon County overturning Gov. JB Pritzker’s masks mandate in some schools made the policy “virtually impossible” to enforce in the district. Tri-Valley was not among the schools named in the lawsuit.

Baum, who recently moved from Downs to Normal, said the district’s decision stripped her family of essential protections against COVID-19. And it put her in the difficult position of sending her daughter to school in an environment that suddenly feels much less safe.

“We still don’t know all the long-term effects,” Baum said. “There’s studies coming out all the time about the implications of COVID and what COVID will do to people down the line.”

Moist said she also worries about all the unknowns. But her concerns don’t center around what happens when we take kids out of masks. Moist is worried about what happens if we don’t. “I’m terrified in a way to see what studies, years from now, come out and see how this has affected our kids,” she said.

But despite those concerns, Moist has been hesitant to express her feelings about masking because of the vitriol that can explode on either side of the debate. “I think I’ve been shocked by the level of almost hatred that I’ve seen on social media,” Moist said.

Moist worries about the implications of expressing what, for many, is an unpopular opinion. She said she hesitated to be interviewed for this story, worrying that as a small business owner, she may alienate her customers.

Moist isn’t alone. WGLT spoke with two other parents who declined to go on record. Both parents said they were supportive of mask mandates at first but are beginning to question whether they’re still necessary in schools. One parent said she's lost friendships for merely expressing her changing views. The other said she feared reprisal in her “liberal” workplace.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, there is no shortage of parents willing to storm school board meetings to make their feelings known. But seemingly there are many more quietly navigating personal decisions in an environment that's turned intensely political.

And many of those complicated decisions may hinge on a seemingly simple question: How hard is it for a kid to wear a mask?

For Baum, whose family relies on masks to keep vulnerable people in their life safe, it isn’t difficult. “My child has never once complained about wearing a mask. I’ve never seen any of her friends complain,” Baum said. “It just a normal thing they do, and they understand why they’re doing it.”

But for Moist, whose child relies on the movement of lips to understand the world, the answer is different. For her daughter, masks are a “nightmare” that has lasted for nearly two years.

And as the debate over mandatory masking in school rages on, one thing is clear: no matter the outcome, some families will be left behind.

This story has been updated to reflect that Amy Baum has one daughter, not two as previously written.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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