Jahfari Maddo (center) works on an assignment in AP biology at Brewer High School in January 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Jonnathan Busko of Bangor is an emergency medicine physician with a masters degree in public health.

On Aug. 5, buried in the appendix of a technical document, the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention offered Americans great freedoms. Freedoms from second-class remote education. Freedom from lost work time. Freedoms for employers to maintain their workforce.

And yet, at the expense of American citizens, many schools, administrators, and education and health leaders have failed to embrace this opportunity.

What the CDC did was simple yet very important. If students are “close contacts” of someone with COVID-19, they have to quarantine. Last school year, this resulted in likely millions of students having to go to remote learning, sometimes repeatedly, disrupting not only their education but parents’ and caregivers’ work schedules. Already this school year, thousands of students are quarantined.

On Aug. 5, the CDC changed the definition of close contact. Now, “In the K–12 indoor classroom setting … if both the infected student and the exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time,” those students are no longer considered close contacts. If the Maine Department of Education updates its guidance to reflect this new definition of “close contact,“ with mandatory masking in Maine, this means no quarantine for these students. This means no lost workdays for their parents. This means no extra childcare costs.

Great freedoms.

Mask wearing has been one of the most visible and emotionally burdensome aspects of the pandemic. While freedom from masking is not a fundamental right, in a country where we have many rights, mask mandates make us feel powerless. However, to use a popular phrase, “with great rights come great responsibilities.”

In light of the new close contact definition, any school that doesn’t mandate masks takes away parents’ rights to protect their children from COVID-19 exposure (both people masked works better than only one person masked), takes away their rights to protect their children from quarantine, and takes away their rights to not have to call out of work, or scramble for childcare.

Any school that doesn’t mandate masks shifts a burden on to employers who will face call-outs and will have to offer incentive pay to fill shifts on short notice.

In other words, schools that don’t mandate mask wearing shift the burden away from the few and onto the many, increasing the overall burden on Mainers. And last but not least, don’t forget that the reason the CDC can make this change is because last year’s experience showed us that having everyone masked in schools prevented transmission of COVID-19.

While those who oppose protecting students in school point out that the risk of death or serious illness in these kids is “virtually zero,” “virtually zero” is not “zero” and the difference could be you sitting at the bedside of your child dying in an ICU because someone else’s child didn’t wear a mask to school.

School mask mandates protect students from COVID-19, but they also protect students from lower quality remote education, protect parents and caregivers from having to call out of work or unexpected childcare costs, and protects employers from losing their workforce and having to pay bonuses.

The CDC has given schools great power to protect the freedoms of the many with a minimal burden on the few. Now, as students return to school, let’s seize that opportunity for the good of students, parents, employers and society.