If we don’t want our kids to act out, be selfish or refuse to listen to instructions, then we shouldn’t behave that way, either.

Parents know that there’s more to school than academics.

We hope our kids are learning when they are sitting at their desks, but we also know that – for better or worse – they are learning when they line up for lunch, when they run around outside at recess or when they climb onto the school bus at the end of the day.

Listening to instructions, working as a team, waiting your turn and treating others with respect are important lessons for young people, ones that are often taught through the example set by the adults in their lives.

With the opening of most Maine schools just two weeks away, a lot of adults should be thinking about the lessons they are teaching.

School districts are struggling to write the COVID rules that will allow them to safely open for the fall term, at the same time the public health guidance and the virus itself are changing.

This summer we’ve seen parents at school board meetings to protest mask mandates, challenging science with paranoia, shouting down experts who tell them something they don’t want to hear and claiming that you can’t have personal liberty and protect public health at the same time.

They need to cut it out. Kids are watching.

It’s easy to see why people are frustrated. After a year and a half of disrupted education, students went home for summer vacation with the expectation that things would be going back to normal, or close to it, in the fall.

But with the highly contagious delta variant pinballing across the state, the rules have changed.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highly recommends that everyone should wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose when they are indoors, regardless of their vaccination status. Since the vaccine has not been approved for children younger than 12, schools are exactly the indoor spaces where these rules should be observed.

Maine is no longer officially in a state of emergency, so this is a local matter. We were happy to see that many Maine school districts, including Portland and Bangor, will require universal mask wearing as the schools reopen. Other districts, including Skowhegan and Topsham, will at least start the year with masking and revisit the issue at a later date.

But some districts have let the loudest voices rule and are putting students at risk.

School boards in Lewiston, Auburn and Madison, for example, have tried to evade responsibility by declaring that mask wearing in school should be a decision made by each family. This might sound like a compromise, but it is not. Masks work best when everyone wears one because they limit the transmission of virus from people who are infected but may not know it yet.

Leaving mask wearing to individual judgment means there will be more virus circulating in the air and more opportunity for people to get sick. It’s not a compromise – it’s a capitulation.

Look at what’s happening in the South, where state governments are actually interfering with school officials who want to require masks in areas where there is community transmission. In Hillsdale, Florida, 8,400 students and 300 staff members were sent home to quarantine because of an outbreak just four days into the school year. In Broward County, Florida, three staff members from one school (all unvaccinated) died of COVID on the same day.

If there is an outbreak in a Maine school that did not require mask-wearing, people should look at the school officials who put the community at risk because they were too afraid to follow the best medical guidance.

The start of the school year is a good opportunity to model responsible behavior.

Kids are watching how adults act when they are asked to do something for the good of the group, even if it’s kind of annoying. Is this how we want them to act when they are asked to wear a flotation vest on a boat, a seatbelt in a car or shoes when they go into a store?

Adults need to put things in perspective. No one has died from wearing a mask, but COVID kills. Fortunately, the mask controversy is coming from adults, not children. Most kids have gotten used to wearing them and are looking forward to getting back to school with their friends.

Let’s not wreck it for them with politics. Remember, they’re watching.

This editorial first appeared in the Portland Press Herald on Aug. 22.

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