By Anna Popnikolova, assistant editor-in-chief
The news that masks aren’t going to be required at school anymore after February 28th has been making its rounds through Nantucket High School this past week. Students and teachers alike discuss their thoughts on mask-wearing, and how they think removing the mask mandate for Nantucket Public Schools is going to affect learning, life, and the “new normal.” It’s been a while since I heard anyone say “the new normal”. Even just writing it feels like it’s mid-2020 again. Yikes.
Technically, February 28th doesn’t actually decide the fate for Nantucket’s public school students, though this misinformation is being consistently shared: the mask mandate for schools statewide is going to drop. The DESE mask mandate for all public schools in the state of Massachusetts, which ordered all students ages 5 and up to wear masks indoors at schools, was put into place August 25th, 2021. The mandate release claimed that it would last until October 1st, and that schools could remove the mask requirement if they could prove an 80% vaccination rate overall from their body population. The mandate, however, was first extended until November 1st, then to January 15th, and then again to February 28th, as the country tried to navigate the massive Omicron wave—which brought COVID infections around 1 million at Omicron’s peak, an all-time high for a wave thus far in the pandemic. Hopefully, a record that we will not be breaking.
NPS masking will be discontinued on Monday, March 14th, meaning it will be optional but not required for students to wear masks. However, masks will continue to be worn on school buses, due to a CDC order requiring them. The decision is still being deliberated, and I think that everyone certainly has their own views on the matter, but I do know there are a lot of different things to take into consideration, and I hope that the final decision is best for the students and staff of our schools.
My personal opinion on the matter follows a lot of what I’ve heard from others around me—masks need to stay in our schools. We’re still recovering from the highest COVID numbers we’ve seen on Nantucket, in Massachusetts and in the entire country, since the beginning of the pandemic. Many teachers and students were out sick almost every day; we had to hold classes in the auditorium because we did not have enough teachers in school, and the nurses nearly ran out of rapid COVID tests. We made it out, and the number of cases has dropped, but it was a terrifying few weeks to live through. We need to be doing our best to make sure that doesn’t happen again. There’s still so much that we don’t know about COVID-19, there are still many variants to come, and despite what many people may seem to have convinced themselves, the pandemic is not over. We can ease up on restrictions as we continue to improvise, adapt and overcome our way through these times, but we can’t abandon caution completely. This isn’t the time to be dropping the one thing that offers the most protection against COVID infections. Masks are our most powerful, and one of the only, weapons we have to fight against the pandemic. Vaccinations are an important defense, but they cannot prevent infection 100% of the time. Neither can masks. Vaccination and mask-wearing are much more effective when they are practiced at the same time, and we shouldn’t be depending on one over the other. We need to keep wearing our masks.
Aside from the obvious, mask-wearing provides protection against viruses other than COVID-19. COVID isn’t the only rampant virus spread by airborne water droplets. Influenza is spread similarly to coronavirus, and is an incredibly prominent illness in the winter months, especially in the months between December and March. Since the beginning of the pandemic, flu numbers have been at record lows—and the number of recorded flu cases in the 2020-2021 year has reached a historic low, with 2.0% positive lab influenza tests reported the week of February 4th. For comparison, the positive lab tests for the week of February 2nd, 2019 showed highs of 25.5% positives in some regions, the lowest positives being at 13.7%. The difference is impossible to ignore. This isn’t just due to masks—it’s also social distancing, hand washing and overall increase in both hygiene and self-awareness. More people stay home when they have symptoms, fearing that it may be COVID; sometimes, it happens to be the flu. Any winter-spreading virus that we used to see in our schools through these months has been reduced drastically with pandemic measures. COVID-19 accommodations and restrictions don’t only help stop the spread of COVID. They help stop the spread of everything.
We’ve come this far in the pandemic wearing masks everywhere we go—in school, to the store, in buses and Ubers, at workplaces. It’s become an almost permanent feature of people’s faces at this point. I have gotten so used to seeing the people around me wearing masks, that I am thoroughly stunned when I see someone take off their mask for the first time. It’s not that I had a specific image of what that person would look like, but more that I perceive the mask as what their face is. The idea that something could exist below it is unfathomable to me. I think, for some people—I know this is the case for me, at least—wearing a mask has become even more convenient than not wearing one. Makeup need not be applied to the bottom half of the face. A particularly nasty pimple on the chin or nose can be easily concealed when the mask is pulled up. Particular facial expressions throughout the day are hidden by the mask. I can stick my tongue out at people, and they don’t even know. It’s ideal, really.
There are still kids who don’t wear their masks right now—below the nose, on their chins. They might as well not be wearing them at all. But the failure of some to consider the basic health of their classmates and teachers doesn’t negate the importance of wearing masks.
Of course, there are things that are still unpleasant. My glasses still get fogged up sometimes, and though I’ve almost perfected the art of fog-less mask-wearing, I’m still practicing. It can get stuffy, yes, particularly if a space is really warm. There is a level of discomfort to it sometimes, but there’s discomfort in almost everything. I’d be uncomfortable in a hot, sticky room regardless of my mask. It doesn’t affect me so much as it may have in the beginning of the pandemic. I barely notice it anymore. It’s not as big of a bother as people make it out to be, and the minor inconveniences that it may bring are definitely not enough to use as an excuse to rid them from our schools entirely.
Masks have been a critical part of overcoming this pandemic, and they need to stay. You don’t stop taking medication because it’s working, and we shouldn’t nix masks because they’re doing their job of keeping our case count relatively low. I don’t know for how long they will need to stay. Another year. Two. More than that. Maybe we’ll get rid of masks eventually. Maybe they’ll stay a small part of our lives forever. Maybe we’ll need them for other things. I think that removing them now, hastily, because we’ve judged that they are too nagging to make up for their safety benefits, is a mistake. It’s unsafe, it’s dangerous, and we still don’t know the extent of this pandemic. Making such a premature choice would be for the good of no one. Masks need to stay on.