Let's chat about schools enforcing dress codes but making masks a 'personal choice'

This week, viral photos from the first day of school in various Georgia counties showed students crowded together with few masks in sight. Schools in the same area had to shut down entire classrooms due to positive tests after the first day back, quarantining students and teachers for two weeks.

In these counties, students are "encouraged" to wear a mask at school, but they are not required. Mask-wearing is referred to as a "personal choice."

This week, a private Christian college in a town near where I live announced that is planning to resume in-person classes this fall. The school has decided that students will not be required to wear masks, despite the fact that the town itself has a mask mandate for all public spaces. "No riots. No masks. In person. This fall," the college wrote in a Facebook post advertising the school last month.

The supposed justification for not requiring students to wear masks is that it's a "personal choice," and that students have the freedom to choose whether to wear one or not.

That's a neat story. Except it is totally hypocritical coming from schools and school districts that have no problem placing limits on personal choice and freedom by mandating stringent dress codes for students.


In Cherokee County school district in Georgia, students must wear pant legs that don't touch the ground, shirts that completely cover the shoulders, and skirts or pants without frayed edges. But they don't have to wear masks in the middle of a literal pandemic.

The dress code for New Saint Andrew College dictates that male students must wear button-up shirts (but no polos), dress pants and dress shoes at all times. Women must wear dresses, dress shirts and dress pants or skirt, dress shoes, and "at least one extra item (scarf, visible and dressy jewelry, dressy jacket, blazer, cardigan, etc.)." But they don't have to wear masks in the middle of a literal pandemic.

A few other choice details from the college's dress code:

- "Students must maintain good hygiene and grooming, both for the sake of the student's appearance and for the comfort of others nearby." (Umm, doesn't good hygiene include not keeping germs to yourself in a pandemic? I know that would make me comfortable.)

- "Students must keep their shoes on at all times." (Sooo, shoes on at ALL times. Masks on during a pandemic only if you feel like it. Got it.)

- "Black academic robes (available for purchase from the college bookstore) are required at disputatio, convocation, commencement, and oral finals for matriculating students who have earned 32 credits toward their degree program. Robes do not replace proper dress and must be worn over top of correct clothing as required by the dress code." (So you have to wear the black robes in these instances. As in, no personal choice in the matter. But making students wear masks to mitigate a contagious novel virus spread is too much to ask.)

It's pretty clear that the refusal to mandate masks is not about personal freedom; it's about political statements. Because too many of our leaders and too much of our hyperpolarized society insist on turning everything under the sun—including basic science—into a partisan argument, somehow mask-wearing has become something political.

Public health is not a partisan thing. It shouldn't even be a political thing. The pandemic doesn't care about your political beliefs. Period.

Presumably, dress codes are in place to protect students in some way, right? To keep the environment safe and conducive to learning? How is mandating masks to keep students and teachers safer in a pandemic any different?

The only way I can see that it's different is that masks actually have science to back up their use, they're recommended by public health officials, and they're useful in helping not only the students, but the entire community at large.

Seriously, you can't enforce a dress code under normal circumstances and then turn around and say that you won't enforce mask-wearing in a pandemic because of "freedom." If schools were really concerned about personal freedom when it comes to putting things on your body, students wouldn't be required to keep their shoulders covered or wear shoes. The blatant hypocrisy is ridiculous.

I took my 16-year-old to the store the other day, and as we walked in, she said, "It makes me so happy to see all these people wearing masks." We live in a state that requires masks in public. And I agreed with her; it's a relief to know that everyone will be masked when you go into a store or other public place. We know that masking is most effective if everyone does it. Our governor has taken heat from the "but my freedom" folks over the mandate, but I'm grateful for the clarity and decisive action based on public health recommendations. Too many people have already proven that they won't wear masks if they are not required. My state has gone from having the first outbreak in the nation to #23 for total cases, and I credit the requirements the government put in place to keep spread under control.

If schools are going to open, masks should absolutely be part of the strict, required safety protocol to keep the pandemic as controlled as possible. Letting it be a "personal choice" won't work, as evidenced by what we've already seen in Georgia. While keeping masks on little kids is a whole other question, high school and college students can handle it. Toughen up and save lives. It's really that simple.

People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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People often think of government bureaucrats as being boring stuffed shirts, but whoever runs social media at the National Park Service is proving that at least some of them have a sense of humor.

In a Facebook post, the NPS shared some seasonal advice for park-goers about what to do if they happen to encounter a bear, and it's both helpful and hilarious. Not that a confrontation with a bear in real life is a laughing matter—bears can be dangerous—but humor is a good way to get people to pay attention to important advice.

They wrote:

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."