As an educator, a child of an educator, and a mother, I have watched in horror as Utah leaders refuse to step up and do what is right for our schoolchildren and our community.

There is consensus among public health experts regarding the need for a layered approach to COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools, including universal face coverings. I am one of many Utahns who have had enough and implore leaders at all levels to utilize a science-based approach to COVID-19 prevention. 

Many state and county leaders talk much about parental “choice” regarding masking. But these claims ring hollow.

In cases of children who are immunocompromised or who live with immunocompromised family members, leaders often point to online education options that are available in some — but shockingly, not all — school districts in Utah. Yet even when districts and schools have online options, many programs within schools are only available in person.

As we know by now, online and in-person learning are far from equivalent — which is the very reason Utah legislators pushed for students to return to in-person learning in the spring in the first place. Children who are at-risk or who live with at-risk family members deserve the same safe in-person education as those who are not.

I and many other concerned citizens wholeheartedly agree with the rationale Gov. Spencer Cox cited in April for state legislators keeping mask mandates in schools at that time: Children under 12 cannot yet receive the vaccine, not all adults in schools are vaccinated, COVID-19 can have lasting ill effects on children, and even infected children who are asymptomatic can pass COVID-19 on to others.

All these conditions remain true in Utah schools today, and the Delta variant has arrived. Delta is more contagious, and children appear more vulnerable to it, compared with the original virus. As a result, cases among children are on the rise. At the same time, Primary Children’s Medical Center is full. Nevertheless, our leaders are forcing public schools to revoke the very strategies they advocated for last year, despite the fact that local experts and children’s hospitals nationwide argue for universal masking in schools.

The failure of leadership is not restricted to the state or county level, as I saw firsthand when attending my local school board meeting to share the collective concerns of parents in my district. In the five minutes I was given to speak, I begged them to follow the science and expert guidance on this issue. I pointed to other districts across the country, including the Austin Independent School District where I attended school as a child in Texas, that were stepping up to protect children and communities despite legislation and executive orders prohibiting it. 

Later in the meeting there was a presentation about the steps the district is taking to provide students with a safe learning environment during the pandemic. The presenter spoke about encouraging masking and social distancing, among other strategies. The words and plans sounded good, but I looked at the group of leaders gathered in close proximity around a table and just two of the nine were wearing masks. If leaders are not leading by example, how can we expect students to follow?

As the psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote, “the organism is always right” — our behavior is influenced by the environment we are in. It appears that even some of our educators do not grasp this fundamental principle in learning.

In the context of the COVID pandemic, a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that those who intended to wear a face covering were more likely to actually wear one when they saw those around them wearing one. Unfortunately, until leaders step up and take the personal responsibility they speak of, the likelihood of children doing the same is low.

Until mask mandates and other layers of COVID prevention that these leaders previously advocated for are reintroduced in our schools, it is imperative that teachers, staff, and administrators model the behavior they encourage in our children. We desperately need our leaders to step up, follow the science, and lead by example. Our children are watching, and our community depends on it.

Katie Baucom, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, scientist, educator, and mother in Salt Lake County.