Playground rhymes for our troubled times

Do you remember that little song from the playground game, “Ring around the Rosie” from your childhood?

Ring around the rosie,

A pocket full of posies.

Ashes, ashes:

We all fall down!

Now, I wonder if you learned– even as a child, like I did–that this nonsensical-sounding ditty dated back to the bubonic plague decimating Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

It turns out, the Black Death explanation is apocryphal and didn’t appear until the mid-20th century. Even so, the notion of kids taking notice when the world seems on its way to Hell with an oversized hand basket strikes me as accurate.

I haven’t got a COVID-19 rhyme composed for you today, though I’m now tempted to try my hand at one.Map of Mariupol, Ukraine generated by cell phone GPS app

I did, however, have a politically motivated stab at nasty name-calling in verse! come together in my mind over the past few days. While imperfect–and my apologies to the masterful teacher Michael Clay Thompson, whose MCT Langugage Arts curriculum I used with my home educated child in very recent years, so that I now have the vocabulary to describe how weak my doggerel truly is in form and meter–my not-quite-best self still prompts me to post it here.

I’d also like to ask if others can do better. Please, post your own rhyme in the comments, or tweet away!

I feel as if every child in the free world should have such poems on their lips these days. With luck, the wind will carry them across borders to those less fortunate youngsters growing up under dictators.

The literal future of human freedom lay presently with democratic nations around the world who must confront the warmongering by Russia’s “elected” leader and would-be-czar.

Upon seeing the news report of the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9th, 2022, I brought these words together.

Printed text of verse in historical typewriter font: Pathetic Putin, killer of babies. Can’t defeat soldiers so he bombs ladies

I debated posting something so mean-spirited. It goes against the very nature of this blog. Really Wonderful Things tries hard to be a bringer of light, and a force for good, human and wildly imperfect as its author is.

“Pathetic Putin…

What is Really Wonderful, however, is my right to comment on politics and politicians. God bless America, and hurrah for my freedom of speech! We are not perfect, yet I don’t hesitate to write these words or share them with the world. I am safe, though I express a controversial opinion, and in strident tones.

…killer of babies…

A miracle, frankly, if you know much of history.

How grateful I am that this is so… for me. How deeply I wish everyone shared in this good fortune.

…can’t defeat soldiers…

What I hope to accomplish by encouraging innocents to chant insults aimed at distant autocrats is the absolute, utter celebration of democracy and representation for the common individual.

…so he bombs pregnant ladies!”

Every school kid should know that such a system exists, God-willing, right on his or her doorstep. Every free person alive should be teaching those children the rights and responsibilities of an empowered electorate.

We the people of free nations owe every other human being, potential and living, our efforts toward sharing our ultimate luxury.

The people of Ukraine have made clear their disinterest in being re-shackled to their former Soviet masters. The bravery of those defending their homes should serve as a stern reminder for all who hear the news.

Representation is an inalienable right, but it is ultimately a privilege that must be constantly protected from jealous usurpers. The world will never lack for tyrants, in temperament if not in fact.

I stand with Ukraine.

Books by my bedside 2022/February

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

Open copy of unusually wide but short hardcover book Anathema! Medieval scribes and the history of book curses

Autobiography of Janet Frame, To the Is-land (Volume 1) and An Angel at My Table (Volume 2)

Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses by Drogin, Marc

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by McWhorter, John

On Tyranny Graphic Edition: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Snyder, Timothy

Fiction

Young Adult

Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Zoboi, Ibi

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery, and a Very Strange Adventure by Evans, Lissa

New Kid by Craft, Jerry

Mystery/Thriller

The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway #1) by Griffiths, Elly

Maisie Dobbs mysteries The American Agent (#15) and To Die But Once (#14) by Winspear, Jacqueline

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia De Luce #8) by Bradley, Alan

Fantasy

A Darker Shade of Magic by Schwab, V.E.

Library paperbacks Darker Shade of Magic and Autobiography of Janet Frame stacked on bedside table with Kindle reader displaying Black Enough book cover

Reading Notes:

Making democracy great again: modern tyranny & WWII’s British endurance of the Blitz

Pardon me while I tie together my candy floss consumption of mystery novels (here, two of the more recent titles in the Maisie Dobbs series) with Snyder‘s On Tyranny. Ms. Winspear, Dobbs’ creator, has shepherded this particular character from the period just after The Great War to World War II and the Blitz. Invasions and bombings in the 1940’s segue tragically well to a slim, topical volume about tyranny released in 2021.

On Tyranny is the first “graphic novel” I’ve read that isn’t… um… a novel. I’d say “graphic non-fiction” would be a better if unwieldy label. These “twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century” present as a collection of illustrated brief essays.

There’s a whiff of Eric Hoffer‘s The True Believer to it.

Artist Nora Krug absolutely enhances Snyder’s message with her colorful yet slightly creepy style. I find such illustrations particularly haunting when a child-like medium communicates such portentous  messages.

Immersing myself in the fictional experience of Maisie Dobbs enduring the Blitz somehow prepared the fallow field of my mind for open conflict in Europe and the new Cold War dawning along with 2022. Perhaps oddly, I’m made hopeful by the reminder that our grandparents fought similar enemies—and won—in an earlier generation. This awareness sharpens my passion to work against fascism in every way I personally can.

The Maisie Dobbs stories—The American Agent in particular—draw in sharp relief that period when Great Britain stood alone against a fierce onslaught of illiberal governments on the continent. Personal sacrifices by individual English people were many, and the costs were high. It’s easy to forget that “America First” was a slogan used then by U.S. citizens who preferred to let the U.K. sink or swim under Hitler’s assaults alone.

Much of On Tyranny is difficult and distressing to read, but the author’s fundamental argument is against defeatist resignation and capitulation to lassitude. Snyder’s point is that we all must do our bit as citizens if we want to enjoy life in a free, democratic society.

I’m glad I requested this volume from the library when I did, because it was there on my shelf as my news feed filled with oligarchical Russian aggression against Ukrainian democracy.

I Buy Banned Books

Another graphic work I read this month—this one is actually a graphic novel!—was Jerry Craft’s New Kid. My thanks to the reactionary racist snowflake parents in Texas who tried to get it banned: I enjoyed it a lot. Any kid struggling to fit in as “the new kid” will identify with this protagonist. It would be the perfect gift for an artsy kid moving to a new neighborhood or school.

While I disagree totally with those who would ban Maus for children old enough to handle content as tough as genocide, I can at least understand why a depiction of nudity or inclusion of a few bad words frightens school board members in rural America.

This blog post considers a much more realistic reason McMinn County, Tennessee removed Maus from its Holocaust unit.

With New Kid, however? Frankly, unless you object to the very existence of brown people experiencing their own feelings in white spaces, there is nothing ban-worthy in the book. It does not, in any way, shape, or form, teach Critical Race Theory as some parent claimed in an article I read; CRT is never mentioned in the book, which mostly covers typical young teen “fitting in” anxieties at a new school.

New Kid does address how characters from different backgrounds respond to being a minority in a setting with a clear majority, it just does so by telling a normal kid’s story in a perfectly realistic way.

No conceptual legal framework required.

That book you can’t recall the title of…

Now I have to mention Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms. This is a bit of a younger kid’s book than most of the Young Adult stuff I’ve read lately. Why? Because it is a book my older teen read many years ago, then misplaced in our messy house, then couldn’t ever find again. He kept looking for it, though.

“What’s the name of that book…?”

It became one of his, “What’s the name of that book…?” novels.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms turned up way at the back of the bottom drawer of the younger sibling’s desk. Said sibling has never read the book so has perhaps just been hiding it like a wee punk these past few years. The desk in question was a mess of mighty proportions that got cleaned out during February school vacation week.

I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who does this “What’s the name of that book…?” thing. I’m a little sad that I’ve passed on my tendency to the habit to my eldest child.

Our best shared family example of this: The Valley of Secrets by Charmaine Hussey. My kid and I both found this story wildly unique and unforgettable, but neither author nor title sticks with us the way the moody atmosphere and lush descriptions did. We could both also ID it on the shelf by its distinctive leafy cover. Valley of Secrets will be appreciated by readers who relish a well-drawn world who can tolerate a slower pace to the “action” plot.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms is not, as my teen will tell you, “that Hugo Cabret book.”

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick is the one about the kid living in the walls of the Paris train station. When my teen searched for Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms, people kept telling him he must be looking for Hugo Cabret.

There are, in fact, miraculous mechanisms—or, at least, magical ones—in this book about Horten, but, unlike Hugo, Horten himself is not the tinkerer-in-chief. Horten is a fairly average kid, kind of annoyed by his parents, and short for his age. He does move to a new to him town, discover an interesting family legacy that includes a bit of a treasure hunt, and meet new people. Some of those folks turn out to be friends, and others, foes.

Most of the magic in the novel is of the stage magician variety, but the story does dip into more mystical waters by the end.

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms was a quick read for adult me, but I enjoyed it, devouring it in a single sitting on a snowy afternoon, and I’d say it scores relatively high on the freshness scale. It did not feel like all the other child–has-adventure novels I’ve read.

Anathema ain’t what it used to be

Merriam Webster definition of anathema, 2a, circled: a ban or curse solemnly pronounced by ecclesiastical authority and accompanied by excommunicationFinally, allow me to end with the delightfully specific Anathema!, a semi-scholarly history of the curses often penned into hand-written books by medieval scribes. Though seriously researched, I’d describe this book as more for fun than academic in tone. It’s also printed in an unusual short/wide format that made it feel rather special to read.

Crafting a book entirely by hand was a heck of a lot of work, of course, so the threat of excommunication—literal anathema—was deemed a reasonable one against any who might dare to deface or steal a precious tome inked by a scrivener.

Interestingly, book curses continued to be included in early printed volumes as well, even after the printing press made production somewhat less tedious.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Anathema! is its concluding observation that the librarian no longer has quite so much to hold over the head of his or her wayward reader now that the average person doesn’t literally fear the fires of hell.

Quote from Anathema (book curse history) describing the lack of fear curses now incite, and ending with modern library threat that merely "a fine of 5 cents per day will be charged"

Drogin ends the book with these lovely lines:

“Where once echoed the fury of God now lies an insipid whimper:

A fine of 5¢ per day will be charged…”

Can I call Krug’s work “Beavis & Butthead in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine” without giving a negative impression? I’d advise you to read the graphic edition of On Tyranny—or peruse the illustrator’s website—to judge for yourself if you’re baffled by my attempt to use my words to describe her pictures.

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a multi-volume memoir that depicts the experiences of the author’s own family during the Holocaust. Spiegelman draws Jews as cartoon mice, Nazis as cats, Polish people as pigs, and Americans as dogs in the work. A school district in Tennessee removed the book from its eighth grade history curriculum purportedly due to one instance of cartoon “female nudity” and a handful of curse words.Detail from page 100 of Maus graphic novel of a palm-sized illustration that vaguely shows a female breast on a suicide victim

The nudity in question is a top-down view of bare breasts on a woman dead in a bathtub. It cannot by any stretch be viewed as erotic. The rough language in Maus doesn’t hold a candle to the obscenity which was Nazi behavior during the Holocaust.

I own a two volume, boxed Pantheon set of Maus I & II printed in 1986. My kid who home schools has Maus on his reading list.

Facing pandemic persistence, I’ll spend where safety dictates policy

We have made it to August 2021. Sadly, the pandemic is not over, though the most vulnerable people in America have been tricked into behaving as if it is.

Decisions were made to re-open all venues while simultaneously dropping every protective precaution. Some of us believe that choice was precipitous, even reckless. I feel vindicated as my logic proves sound… but also so deeply disappointed.

I know I like redundancies more than most, but this seemed so obvious. “Better safe than sorry” may be trite, but it’s also wise where human lives are on the line.

How ’bout making one change at a time? After each change, observe the effect. It works for scientists, after all.

Oh, right, science is a tool for the liberal elite! Yet fools parroting such nonsense do it gasping through their fluid-filled lungs, crowding into our hospitals—institutions steeped in modern medical knowledge derived via the scientific method.

Some feel their lives aren’t worth living if they have to wear a mask to go shopping. Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable gloves

I wonder how those precious snowflakes would hold up under conditions of true adversity. I imagine the oppressed population of Myanmar—or the people in Haiti or Tunisia, watching their fragile governments wobble under anti-democratic onslaughts—could offer lessons on what really constitutes a hardship to pampered American crybabies.

I would recognize that wearing a mask pales in comparison to being the target of genocide even had I never visited Auschwitz.

What a summer we could have had! If only we’d been cautious enough to resume access to theaters and restaurants, but with our masks in place for crowded, indoor conditions from the outset. It might have been the joyful reunion we all dreamed of during 2020’s isolation, loneliness, and despair.Woman hugs child

Hugging my grandma with a mask on didn’t lessen the joy of it. Visiting with my aunt over coffee on the patio instead of in the kitchen offered equal satisfaction. Espresso in demitasse cup on cafe table

Watching as my father’s “elective”—yet quality of life preserving—joint replacement surgery was postponed once, and then a second time, because no hospital bed was available was yet one more cost of the pandemic, but, this time, caused directly by bad actors, not a novel disease with unknown characteristics.

Now that stung.Analog wall clock showing 12:06

Frankly, I believe libertarian freedoms should be available… but only at a reasonable price. Partakers in those freedoms must give up the right to extort payment from the sensible majority.

Refusing vaccines? Fine, but wear a mask in public settings. Also, public funds—and even private insurance—should eventually cease to pay treatment costs incurred by those rejecting approved vaccines for endemic disease sufficient to be flagged by public health authorities.

The price of ignoring experts when an entire society experiences extreme events should be borne by those who choose to heed only their own counsel. That’s a fair trade off.

During outbreaks of any vaccine-preventable, endemic illness, refusniks must also give up the freedom to enjoy entertainment venues and public conveyances for all but essential purposes. Take your bus across town to work—while masked—sure, but recreational jaunts and all air travel unless, say, to receive urgent medical care out of state ought to be curtailed for those likely to spread disease.

NZ Chch bus MetroUnvaccinated kids should learn remotely unless masks are shown to be sufficient in preventing the spread of measles, chickenpox, the equally transmissible delta variant of COVID-19, and any future outbreak of similarly easily spread viruses.

If masks prove to work as well as that, I am 100% fine with unvaccinated kids—wearing masks—in schools forever. The point is to keep vaccine-preventable germs contained, not to dictate personal decisions that affect only oneself.

It should go without saying that the vaccinated should always be prioritized over the voluntarily unvaccinated when medical treatment becomes a scarce commodity that must be rationed. I hope and pray it doesn’t come to that, but, today, I fear for the people of Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Mississippi and Alabama look pretty terrible, too.

Pandemic illness currently strains the pathetically insufficient “just in time” commercial hospitals in these and other states. An August 5th AP news story describes one Broward County hospital cramming beds into auditorium, cafeteria, and conference rooms to accommodate surging COVID-19 caseloads.

How pathetic that we allowed ourselves to fall back to this point more than a year after learning how and where this virus spreads!

Speaking to business owners and service providers, I reiterate that my personal spending will be concentrated in locations with high rates of vaccination. Pile of money

I will preferentially patronize restaurants and stores that demand proof of vaccination before letting anyone remove her mask.

It shouldn’t fall to commercial interests to manage a public health crisis, but dysfunctional politics brought us to that point. Re-opening—with precautions—allows for increased economic activity without excessive deaths. That’s the course I’ll vote for with my wallet.

Here’s hoping leadership by accounting departments can make up for the inadequacies of incompetent elected officials.

Remote school works best for YOUR child? You have the RIGHT to continue!

Late spring polls—and the blessed waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the USA, at leasthave prompted headlines like this one from the Boston Globe:

“After a difficult academic year, the majority of Mass. parents want in-person school this fall

Boston Globe article headline with "the majority" highlighted by this bloggerThat unambiguous headline hides the whopping 31% of parents who disagreed with the sentiment. Almost a third of the 1,619 parents polled by MassINC Polling Group are NOT eager for mandatory, full-time, in person education just a few short months from now.

That’s more than three out of every ten people. In my childhood classrooms that averaged around 30 kids, that would have meant nine or 10 were attending against their families’ best instincts. I don’t think numbers this significant can be dismissed as a “trivial” minority over whose preferences the majority can ride roughshod with impunity.

An earlier Gallup poll restricted to 14 to 18 year old high school students in the same state of Massachusetts showed similar dissonance with an equally head-scratching headline:

Few Massachusetts Students Prefer Remote Learning

The data in that case also shows that most people, shown a few narrow options, prefer to travel the path of least resistance and do what they’ve always done. Half (50%) of the kids polled, if given these three choices, would attend “in person full-time.” Only 16% would choose “remote school full-time.”

Then again, 34% in the Gallup poll selected the third option: a hybrid “in person/remote” approach. That third of the student body can’t necessarily be described as “preferring” in person education. A more accurate headline would have been: Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning.Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning

Some of these students might’ve been reacting more to a lousy remote education experience—one they got stuck with during a worldwide crisis—rather than alternative learning in general. Even with widespread reports of low quality remote instruction in 2020, from this data, I see that half of the polled teens expressed an interest in at least some education outside of the traditional brick school building.

From yet another source, I offer a press release from National Parents Union including a third poll (poll data here) producing similar statistics. The NPU poll shows 56% of surveyed parents “value having a choice between in-person and remote” learning. Roughly half prefer in person classrooms, but 17-25% of parents depending upon geographic region would prefer a hybrid model.

As with the other polls, 20% of these respondents would prefer full-time remote learning in 2021-22.

The right to an education

Before I say anything more, let me be clear: I do believe that opening schools this fall looks likely to be safe enough for most. The decision to do so appears to be based upon a sound assessment of current conditions in the USA.

Families who want to send their children back to schools in person should absolutely have that option based upon currently available data.

American children have a right to an education. Maybe even a constitutional right to at least basic literacy. In no way am I looking to dictate the best way for other people’s children to learn.USA flag - 1

I grow frustrated by the outright dismissal of the reasonable preferences of a sizeable minority of parents and children who want continued access to remote learning options for those who prefer them.

If even “just” 16-20% of students would choose remote learning, that’s 4.8 to six students in my hypothetical classroom of 30. I find it interesting that 20% of respondents in the NPU poll (see question 14) also reported their pupils “learning more than they normally would” during remote classes than they felt they had attending school in person.

These are real outcomes from American students for whom remote education works well.

The 31% from the first poll of families who don’t want to send their kids back to traditional school buildings—for now, or perhaps forever—deserve to be heard and accommodated by the public system. They may not be the majority, but the group is large enough, and the stakes are high enough, that ignoring the needs of these families is a dereliction of a very reasonable duty of care.

Let’s face reality: it’s not as though our system has been offering an excellent education to every child who wants one up to this point. (An example: the fierce fighting over scarce seats at Boston’s best public schools.) We have a lot of room for innovation and improvement. The point at which 16-31% of participants in the system ask for an alternative seems like an ideal time to start.

Parents usually judge best what works for their own kids

Barring extreme dysfunction, parents know their own children best. While most moms and dads aren’t professional educators, they are experts on the subject of their offspring.

I have two kids, and only one of them was educated at home before the pandemic. 2020-21 was as much of a wild academic ride for us as it was for students everywhere!

I posted about my family’s educational choices here—Home education as a radical act—back in 2017. I was also grateful to take advantage of my son’s school’s outdoor classes during the pandemic.

I mention the different choices made on behalf of my two children because I’m not a rabid proponent of homeschooling at all costs. My sociable younger son is enrolled in school because he prefers learning in a group, and evidence suggests the system works… for him.

My other kid has definitely found his groove, but even my homeschooler didn’t love the shape of every part of learning through a pandemic. That child, too, is eager to return to some classrooms for some subjects; my kid can’t wait to have choices again.

Home education allows for remote learning

This rambling? preamble has served to get me to the following point:

Families who aren’t well-served by the public system are entitled to remove their kids from it. Aside from expensive private institutions, home education is a legal right in all 50 states. Remote classes—many taught by trained professional educators—can be a part of homeschooling.

The internet began offering amazing online opportunities to homeschooling families many years ago, and the pandemic actually increased and enhanced the quality of the choices found thereon.

  • You don’t have to be a trained teacher to do a fine job teaching your own child.
  • You can purchase ready-made curricula for a term or a year, by grade level, or for individual subjects.
  • If your kid excels in one area while struggling with another, you can tailor everything to his or her needs on your own, or with targeted help by hiring tutors or joining group classes.

Here’s a post about a particular online foreign language program that worked out well for my kids: YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids. I’m also a fan of the affordable online courses offered by Royal Fireworks Press.

Roughly 2.5 million American students were learning from home before the pandemic; by March of 2021, that number doubled to 4.5 – 5 million. (Homeschool statistics from NHERI) Plenty of families rejected their schools’ responses to COVID-19 and took the plunge at the time; all of us can make that choice today based on what we’ve learned over the past year and a half of disruption.

If you know that returning full time to a classroom isn’t the best decision for your child, I encourage you to try home education… if you believe it might be a good fit. Making this choice now doesn’t commit you or your child to this course forever; many kids transition in and out of homeschooling every year.

The NHERI link I gave above offers more detail on the subject of the success of home educated students, but the short version I believe everyone deserves to know can be summarized thusly:

  • Homeschoolers as a group perform better on standardized tests than those educated in public schools— 65-80th percentile for the home educated vs. 50th percentile for public institutions (Ray, 2015)
  • Homeschoolers as a group “succeed and perform statistically significantly better than those who attended institutional schools (Ray, 2017)” as functioning adults
  • “87% of peer-reviewed studies on social, emotional, and psychological development show homeschool students perform statistically significantly better than those in conventional schools (Ray, 2017)”

Oh yes, and, add to those points: selective colleges are generally very accepting of well-prepared home educated applicants because they also tend to perform as well as institutionally-educated enrollees at the university level.

Beyond these general facts gathered prior to the ravages of the coronavirus over the 2020-21 school year, it is worth acknowledging that a child who doesn’t feel safe at school is less likely to learn well. A parent who fears for her offspring’s health and safety is likely to perform less well in her own work. These are not insignificant issues; these feelings deserve to be dealt with in a constructive way.

Where state governments or boards of education dismiss out of hand the wishes of 20-30% of their enrolled families, I offer the option of parent-led home education, not as a prescription, but as a valid choice available for those who want it.

Though I’m not a home education focused blogger, per se, I’m happy to answer any specific questions that I can, or to provide links to specific types of resources that have worked for my family, if asked. Ask away in the comments!

If one fifth of students learned more during the pandemic, it seems obvious to me that public schools have an obligation to understand why that happened, retain that advantage going forward, and incorporate remote options for that sizeable chunk of their constituents.

Masks may be liberty-preserving alternative to mandatory vaccines or vax passports

There may be an alternative to mandatory vaccines and the inherent privacy and security concerns of either paper or electronic vaccine passports: allow people to opt out, but normalize the use of masks in densely populated, public, indoor settings when conditions suggest caution is demanded.

In the United States, this requirement should be tied directly to CDC reported rates of dangerous, communicable diseases with wastewater surveillance informing decisions. Medical research should be funded to track the effectiveness of masks against flu and anything else that’s feasible, not just COVID-19.

Ongoing investigation of the role aerosols—and inadequate ventilationplay in spreading common diseases demands equal attention and funding.

I, for one, would not return to an office as of May 2021 without a mask on my face if the space didn’t promise four to six air changes every hour or a fully vaccinated cohort of coworkers! This Wired story is a must read for those who’d like to understand the origins of medicine’s deeply flawed 5 μ myth defining “airborne” pathogens.

While our coronavirus memories are fresh, we owe it to future generations to prepare better for the next global outbreak. It is as inevitable as SARS-CoV-2 was. Fumbling our collective response, however, is not preordained.

We’ve learned a lot during the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ample real world evidence is now available suggesting that even simple homemade cloth coverings reduce the risk of infection from at least this one airborne virus. Flu also virtually disappeared during the 2020-21 season, though that could be as readily attributed to social distance and isolation as opposed to masks.

In the absence of the worldwide supply chain disruptions common early in this pandemic, more definitively effective surgical and N95 masks are easily obtained and affordable. Employers with public storefronts should have boxes of them deployed in the workplace in the same way food service companies provide gloves to their workers.

Unfolded ProGear N95 mask sitting in front box of 50 it came in

As with gloves and hairnets in restaurant kitchens, masks should be the immediate, hygienic response to entering the personal space of unknown persons with unknown vaccination status while any community is in the throes of an infectious agent.

Massachusetts’s governor is quoted in a May 7th Boston Globe opinion piece as saying, “some people have ‘very legitimate reasons to be nervous about a government-run program that’s going to put a shot in their arm.’” The same piece goes on to report, “Attorney General Maura Healey… this week repeated her call for public employees to be vaccinated as a condition of their jobs.”

Requiring every public employee in a customer facing position to wear a face mask at work unless s/he chooses to offer verifiable proof of vaccination seems like a cheap, simple, practical solution to me. As every scientifically literate, law-abiding citizen of the United States now knows, wearing a mask is no more difficult* than wearing pants.

Rome, the power house of the ancient world, believed trousers were ridiculous, barbaric garments. Quite literally, Romans, like the Greeks before them, saw pants as uncivilized clothing fit only for uncouth Goths and Vandals. The entire Western world, and most people around the globe, now don trousers without compunction. Masking one’s face requires no greater degree of adaptation!

Most of us could decide which we prefer at work: to wear a mask, or to accept vaccination. Crucially, the public at large ends up protected either way.Redacted official CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card

I think it is likely that I, personally, will never want to fly again without a face covering, if only because I’m so well aware of my own tendency to touch my face and even bite my nails when experiencing anxiety. It’s a terrible habit I’ve never been able to break, but a comfortable face shield or mask would remove almost all of that risk to my health.

There will always be liars and attempted cheats, of course. Responses to those caught committing public health fraud should be proportionate and focused on preventing harm to the community.

Perhaps being fitted with a device designed like the ankle bracelets employed for house arrest for a period of time would work, offering a visible warning to strangers while broadcasting via Bluetooth? a message alerting those in the vicinity of the need to increase social distance. This could be a system that works with individual’s cell phones, or a device required for public occupancy of spaces meeting certain size or density limits rather like the requirement to install smoke alarms and fire sprinklers before opening a hotel or nightclub for business.

The primary solution is to normalize the continued use of masks in dense situations where we crowd together with unknown persons. The secondary need is for public spaces to meet reasonable, updated standards for safety in light of our current understanding of risk in the post-COVID-19 world.

Once COVID-19 vaccines are fully approved by the FDA, I do believe that employees who work specifically with the most vulnerable population should be required to accept vaccination or leave those particular roles.

Aides in nursing homes should not be able to opt out of coronavirus vaccines, nor the flu vaccine in normal years, nor should nurses serving the immune-compromised. Prison guards—who work with populations literally unable to escape from unvaccinated sources of exposure—are another obvious group whose personal choices should not be allowed to endanger the lives or health of others.

The actual conditions of employment for such positions demand a workforce that doesn’t subject other people to unnecessary risk so easily mitigated by inoculation. Case in point: the unvaccinated Kentucky health care worker who caused the death of three elderly residents of the nursing home where s/he worked. To pretend otherwise makes a mockery of both human decency and common sense.

In another example: a recent study published in JAMA showed that 46% of organ transplant patients produced zero antibodies after a complete 2 shot course of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine. It’s unreasonable that such individuals should be unknowingly subjected to the ministrations—however well-intentioned—of unvaccinated health care workers, certainly not without the immune-compromised patient’s being informed of their relative risk and given the opportunity to offer fully informed consent to taking said risk.

Face masks could also offer an effective solution for the conflict between public school vaccination requirements and anti-vaxxer parents currently allowed in some states to claim religious or other non-medical exemptions for their children.

Further research might prove that masks are not effective against every disease against which we have mandatory childhood vaccinations, but face coverings could potentially eliminate the friction between parent choice and community health in the context of the vital public good which is free, universal education.

Where freedom is the prize—and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable childhood infectious disease remain rare in America—I’d argue that the value of face masks as an alternative to mandatory injections is well worth exploring.Disposable surgical mask

Western medical science was patently wrong, before COVID-19, when it declaimed that face coverings offered no protection from infectious disease. We still aren’t sure if they protect the wearer so much as those in the vicinity of a masked, sick individual, but we do have substantial evidence that widespread adoption of masks can protect populations during a deadly outbreak.

Perhaps most importantly, where even the most well-vetted, safest vaccine or medication carries some tiny risk of harm to its recipient, wearing an appropriate, well-fitting mask correctly has virtually zero chance of injuring anyone. Low cost interventions with few side effects are ideal public health measures.

Asian nations which had internalized the historical lessons of earlier epidemics had it right; many** normalized face coverings during flu season. Now we know better, too. Science proves its inherent value when we incorporate new data into our body of knowledge, especially when we recognize data challenging existing beliefs and ingrained patterns of behavior.

This BMJ editorial (PDF) highlights the danger of clinging to false understandings. This opinion piece by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci is well worth a read on the subject of organizations lurching only slowly toward acceptance of new information challenging medical and scientific preconceptions.

Before the next pandemic, we should take great pains to study when, where, and how cheap, medically risk-free facial coverings work to effectively control the spread of disease. How many thousands fewer would have died if we’d deployed masks as a solution worldwide in days instead of months in 2020?

This is not merely a political issue. It is a matter of public health. Where solutions exist that preserve both life and liberty, we owe it to democracy—and humanity—to explore every possible compromise.

Per the CDC, roughly 1000 flu cases were diagnosed during the pandemic 2020-21 season vs. more than 65,000 cases in the more typical 2019-20 season.

* As with trousers, some are the wrong size, and some are more comfortable on a particular body than others. Trial and error may be required to find the perfect fit for a given individual. Compared with the effort necessary to remediate infecting a susceptible individual with a life-threatening disease, this process is, at worst, a trivial inconvenience.

Per the Boston Globe: One of the major senior care operators in the state of Massachusetts came to a similar conclusion before COVID-19, though the quote perversely suggests that the organization was more interested in shaming staff members as opposed to protecting elderly residents:

“A year before the pandemic, Hebrew SeniorLife required flu shots for the first time for staff. Administrators achieved 100 percent compliance by imposing what seemed at the time an onerous condition: Holdouts would be required to wear masks 24/7 during flu season.

‘That was totally embarrassing then, but not now,” Woolf said. “We don’t have that hammer anymore.’”

In my opinion, after legitimate scientific studies were conducted to confirm that mask use by unvaccinated staff protects vulnerable patients to an equivalent level as vaccinated staff with faces uncovered, this could be a sufficient and highly appropriate alternative to mandatory shots in some cases.

Voluntary residential situations for children under age 18 should probably be held to a higher standard, in my opinion, and strictly require vaccinations for all but medically exempt participants. Absent direct parental supervision, it seems unreasonable to subject anyone else’s child to unnecessary risk due to personal choices that contradict the best current medical advice.

** Routine wearing of masks was imported to Japan from Western nations who’d adopted them as one response to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Unlike we Americans, Japanese culture never dropped them as a reasonable personal response to being contagious after the urgency of the Great Influenza subsided.

This Huffington Post article suggests that the Chinese adopted protective face coverings even earlier: “In 1910 and 1911, citizens were encouraged to wear masks to combat the pneumonic plague outbreak in Manchuria.”

The article goes on to point out that other Asian nations picked up the habit of covering faces during outbreaks due specifically to the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. I’ve read that Koreans, in particular, actually viewed masks in a somewhat negative light as a foreign, Japanese import before the first SARS crisis.