Mask Mandates in Schools: A Necessary Precaution, or Security Theater?

Dylan Rem and Joey Carroll

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic 18 months ago, mandates requiring the wearing of face coverings in public places have evolved from a medical safeguard to a contentious debate over the balance between personal freedoms and collective safety. While New York City has required masks in public schools and transportation regardless of vaccination status, conservative states such as Texas and Florida have passed laws explicitly banning any mask mandates within their jurisdictions. Florida Governor Ron de Santis has even withheld pay from school board members who attempt to enforce mask requirements, saying that only parents can make medical decisions for their children. The Biden administration has opposed these actions with equal force, reimbursing the salaries of school board members who enforce mask mandates with federal dollars and announcing an investigation into the potential violation of disabled students’ civil rights. 


Compulsory masking has unleashed a wave of volatility into school board meetings across the United States, with anti-maskers disrupting gatherings from Arizona to Florida with chants of “we will not comply” and other anti-mask epithets. However, the New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) mandate has proven relatively uncontroversial at West End Secondary School. Echoing the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which stresses universal indoor masking as a prerequisite for opening schools for full-time in-person instruction, WESS math teacher Addison Love opined that masking “not only provides security for others … but also makes us be more safe because we’re conscious that we have to take [other] precautions.” In addition to masking, Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a priority to ensure additional anti-viral measures, including routine testing, enhanced physical distancing and ventilation in schools buildings, and mandatory vaccinations for teachers, are executed to minimize the spread of COVID within schools. To many, masking has become second nature, with 9th grader Lace Thompson remarking that mask-wearing “doesn’t bother me anymore … [even] if we’re going out on a walk, I always bring my mask.” Relying on both the physical safety masks provide from the spread of disease, as well as the sense of security provided by their ubiquitousness, the NYCDOE has amended its guidelines to allow contacts who wear their masks and maintain three feet of distance from COVID-19 infectees to bypass mandatory quarantine.


However, the intimate and omnipresent protection that masks offer presents  challenges to returning to a pre-COVID school experience. While 11th grade student Clara Burns acknowledged that masks are necessary for the current situation, she also commented that “[I] don’t really like wearing a mask … it is pretty limiting when you can’t tell the shape of people’s mouths or struggle to hear your teachers.” Other students interviewed echoed this point, that, almost paradoxically, masks enable social interaction by permitting in-person learning, while simultaneously impeding it in daily interactions. The physical toll of masks was also a common complaint among students: on warm days, when they can become muggy, participating in classes like gym and staying focused in class, especially for glasses wearers, becomes a challenge. 


Every WESS community member interviewed hopes that masks will eventually become optional. Over 80 percent adults and 70 percent of 12-17 year olds in New York City have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 Vaccine, and vaccine manufacturer Pfizer has asked the FDA to approve its vaccine for children aged 5-12 – the only group at WESS that is currently unable to be vaccinated. While these developments led Love to speculate that masks could become optional as early as February, other community members were less optimistic, speculating that masking would remain a requirement for the remainder of the year. Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic. Thompson even said that masking could become a cultural norm as it already is in Asian countries, predicting that “during the flu season, [students and teachers] will have to wear masks.”


Regardless of their personal preferences on mask wearing, all WESS community members interviewed agreed that masking is here to stay as a necessary inconvenience for the immediate future. The science behind mandatory masking in schools and its tradeoff with the social benefits of face to face interactions remains a contentious issue in the public sphere, but in the light of COVID outbreaks that have shuttered schools around the country, the NYCDOE’s commitment to keep schools in-person and healthy means WESS students and teachers will almost certainly continue to mask up every morning for the majority of the 2021-2022 school year.