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Last Wednesday, the District Board decided that beginning this week—two years after M-A first shut down—the choice to wear masks in the classroom would be left to individual students and staff. Still, the Board upheld San Mateo County Health’s “strong recommendation” to continue mask-wearing indoors. This mixed message from the District and county health officials is inappropriate during a global health crisis, and redirects accountability onto individuals that are not equipped to make decisions about the state of public health. We deserve assurance of our health provided through clear leadership, not vague statements that don’t outline what is safe and what isn’t.
The District’s “strong recommendation” to wear masks both suggests that unmasked individuals pose a health risk to the community, but that we have turned a corner and life is returning to normal. If officials believe that it is now safe for people to remove their masks—given the understanding that masks may only have a negligible effect—then it should immediately opt for an “optional” masking status rather than a “strongly recommended” status.
The “strong recommendation” implies that it is not safe for everyone at schools to de-mask, and if that is the case, it does not make sense for leaders to give people that option in the first place. For people who live with or are a part of at-risk populations that suffer a significantly higher COVID-19 mortality rate, the District and county’s language could needlessly fuel anxieties regarding the safety of attending school when masks are not required. If masks are key to preventing deaths, then leaders should continue what has been working and provide peace of mind to the people it serves.
If many students were not showing up to school because of the mask mandate, health officials would be more justified to make a hurried repeal. But, because masks are a less controversial requirement than issues like vaccines, officials do not need to make a change to their current guidance if it creates unnecessary risk.
Another flaw in the “strong recommendation,” is that it creates friction between people who decide to mask and people who do not. Students have already reported feeling pressure to either remove or keep their masks on, depending on what the majority of their classmates are doing. The recommendation also creates an expectation for people to mask, which has the social effect of making non-mask wearers seem irresponsible. Whether they choose to mask or de-mask, people will likely make that choice based on their personal feelings and comfort level, but clear guidance would be beneficial in an already awkward situation. If it is safe for students and staff to de-mask, then they should feel comfortable doing so and not as though they are defying official guidance.
Most of the debate about masking focuses on public health and safety, but there are some pronounced social and emotional benefits to de-masking. According to an article published in the Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Science Journal, because masks cover lower parts of the face, they prevent facial mimicry—where humans naturally recreate other people’s emotional experience—limiting their ability to empathize and interact socially. In the era of Zoom and masking, people have lost many essential aspects of human connection. A confident move towards de-masking (if the time is right) is a critical part of the return to normalcy after over two years of the pandemic.
Jenna Carson, M-A’s Sequoia Aspirations Advocate Program Coordinator, said, “Based on what I see on campus, I would be surprised if many students remove their mask on Monday at all, as the vast majority still wear them even outside during the day. I worry deeply about the number of students who are literally hiding behind their masks and their hoods.”
If the science indicates that it is time for masks to come off, then the District and county leaders ought to follow this data wholeheartedly, given the benefits of de-masking to human interaction and self-esteem.
There is no overwhelming reason to lift the mask mandate now unless it is deemed safe for the District to do so—whether that is today or next school year—after which the District should pursue optional masking status with no further provisions. When the question is whether or not it is safe for students and staff to de-mask, the District and local health officials’ “strong recommendation” is a non-answer.