When Sarah Allen first heard that masks could soon become optional in New York City public schools, her initial reaction was not one of relief.
“I was worried,” she told Intelligencer.
A mother of four, Allen has worked as a teacher for 20 years and currently teaches first grade in Brooklyn. She said she has long looked forward to the day when masks were no longer required in city schools. But now that the day has arrived? Allen feels differently.
“I wasn’t excited the way that I’d always hoped I would be, like, Well, we’re really here,” she said on Thursday. “I don’t feel like we’re there. I don’t feel like this is a safe choice yet. My school already has three cases this week.”
Governor Kathy Hochul announced that the statewide indoor-mask mandate for schools would end during the first week of March, citing improved COVID-19 risk levels and new changes in CDC metrics. In a statement, she called the move “a huge step forward for our kids and communities.”
Soon after, Mayor Eric Adams said New York City schools would follow suit. If the city continued to show lower risk levels and no significant spike in cases, masks would become optional inside school buildings starting Monday, March 7.
Adams made the change official during an event at Times Square on Friday, announcing that kindergarteners to 12th graders will no longer be required to wear masks at school — though those who still wish to wear masks on school grounds will be able to. Children younger than 5 years old will still be required to wear masks since they are currently unable to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We want to see the faces of our children. We want to see their smiles. We want to see how happy they are,” Adams said. “We want to see when they’re feeling sad, so that we can be there to comfort them, and the masks prevented us from doing so for almost two years.”
Schools will still be expected to maintain certain health protocols, such as the continued distribution of at-home test kits, daily screenings for symptoms, and increased ventilation.
Allen had hoped that there would have been more changes to help decrease the spread of COVID-19 prior to the new mask policy, like the provision of HEPA air purifiers. She believes that a lot of her school’s transmission occurs in the cafeteria, where the windows are only cracked open as the children eat.
“I’ve always felt that when they come off, it’s going to be a nice thing. But I really figured that would be accompanied by improvements in other areas and that is definitely not the case,” she said.
Allen plans to continue to wear a mask when she goes into work and said her four children will attend their classes masked as well. “I feel like the least I can do to protect all of my students — because not all of my students are vaccinated either — is to continue to wear a mask around them,” she said.
Allen hopes to see a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for the next school year, and several city officials are already pushing the issue. Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, released a joint letter with city comptroller Brad Lander on Thursday, saying that as some COVID-19 policies are lifted, the city should be taking measures to ward off future outbreaks, like announcing a vaccine mandate for students beginning in the fall.
For many other families, teachers, and local politicians, though, the lifting of the school-mask mandate is cause for celebration — and long overdue. In late February, hundreds took part in a Staten Island rally against masks in school, where they were joined by elected officials like City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli, Representative Nicole Malliotakis, and Representative Lee Zeldin, who is currently running to be the next governor of New York.
Days later, Joann Ariola, a councilmember from Queens, sent a letter to Adams urging him to lift the mask mandate in schools. In it, she cited concerns about students’ ability to learn communication skills and potential “long-term social and emotional effects.” When Adams announced his decision, she thanked him in a tweet for “bringing common sense back to NYC!”
Kaliris Salas-Ramirez of East Harlem, who works as a professor at the CUNY School of Medicine, feels that the benefits of a schoolwide mask mandate still outweigh the drawbacks.
“It protects our communities,” said Salas-Ramirez, who is also president of her district’s Community Education Council.
Since she has an unvaccinated 2-year-old at home, Salas-Ramirez and her 10-year-old child have been diligent about COVID precautions when they attend school and work. She feels that there are still too many unknowns about the effect that the virus and potential future variants could have on children.
“Even as a parent we don’t know, straight off the bat, if our kids are medically fragile or compromised in some sort of way. These things, we learn about them when the symptoms come up. That’s the scary part about COVID. You just don’t know how it’s gonna affect your children or how it’s gonna affect you,” she said. “We don’t know enough about this virus to be like, ‘Oh yeah, this person will have a mild [case] and this person will end up with long COVID suffering for years, decades of their life, or losing their life.’ So we’ve been very intentional about protecting our home.”
The impending end of mandatory masking in New York City’s schools has been particularly stressful for those who know they are vulnerable to COVID-19, such as Liat Olenick, an elementary-school teacher in Brooklyn.
“As someone who is immunocompromised and more vulnerable, despite being vaccinated, I really identify with other people in that situation,” Olenick said. “I don’t think that the many thousands of kids and educators who are in that category were considered at all in making this decision.”
Olenick thinks that the mandate change could potentially raise issues of health equity in areas of the city where vaccination rates aren’t as high as others, a factor she doesn’t believe was taken into account by local officials.
“I actually am at a school that has a really high vaccination rate and is in a relatively privileged community. But in other schools, there might be 20 or 30 percent of kids vaccinated and people living in multigenerational households with frontline workers,” she said.
Olenick has sensed a lot of uneasiness about the change among her fellow staff members, but she acknowledges that not everyone feels the same way.
“I would say most of the people I’ve talked to were concerned and feel it’s premature, but I know there are other people who feel differently and might feel excited,” she said.
Salas-Ramirez said she’d feel comfortable about dropping the mask mandate if additional measures were taken, such as ensuring that every community has access to high-quality masks and consistent COVID testing in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“All of the mitigation measures need to be there. And then, if we have the right ventilation, if we have all of the testing and we still have really low community spread that is data informed, then sure. We can talk about unmasking, that’d be great,” she said.
But for now, her oldest will be heading to class with his mask on.
“In with a mask and with his five spare ones in all the different pockets in his backpack,” she said.
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