With masks optional, NYC schools react with shrugs, enthusiasm, and sometimes fear

A mask sits next to a student as they complete a worksheet. The photo is zoomed in on the worksheet and the student’s hands.
A mask sits on a desk while a student completes a worksheet. NYC lifted its school mask mandate starting on Monday. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

With New York City’s mask mandate ending for most public school students on Monday, Matt Brownstein began his day shuttling to a handful of classrooms to help students think through some of the questions that might have been swirling in their minds.

If I take my mask off, am I at greater risk of getting sick or infecting a family member? Does keeping a face covering on make others feel pressured to do the same? Should people who are comfortable not wearing a mask put them on around people who are wearing them?

Brownstein, an assistant principal at P.S. 330 in Queens, where nearly a third of students are English language learners and nearly all come from low-income families, said he wanted to head off any confusion or conflict that might arise on the first day of the new policy. His approach was to be vulnerable and acknowledge that it wasn’t just children who might struggle to think the issue through.

“We shouldn’t be judging, we shouldn’t be mean, and we shouldn’t be acting out of fear — we should be acting out of kindness,” Brownstein said he told the students. “I’m genuinely trying to figure it out as well, so I’m modeling that earnest intention because I don’t necessarily know what the right thing is either.” 

About 80% of students and staff at the school kept their masks on, Brownstein added. He decided to keep his mask on in classrooms and the cafeteria, but took it off in hallways and outside.

Across the city, educators, teachers, and students are just beginning to figure out thorny questions about how to navigate the policy change, especially as public health officials have repeatedly said that masks are an important layer of protection to interrupt transmission. 

With the backing of the city’s teachers union, Mayor Eric Adams lifted the city’s mask mandate after it was no longer required by the state and shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new criteria that suggested it is safe to shed masks in New York City schools.

Still, fresh off the omicron surge, which infected at least 150,000 students and staff since late December, some said the end of the mask mandate felt abrupt. Even though case numbers have plummeted, some students and staff said they were wary of peeling back protective measures, especially those with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable or who live with young children who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated. Others felt shedding face coverings gave them a new sense of freedom and connection, as many students had not ever seen each other’s full faces before.

Some schools took a strong position on what decision students should make. At Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, a 6-12 school, administrators wrote an email to families that said, “We strongly recommend that students and staff continue to wear masks in school to keep everyone safe.” They emphasized that KN95 masks are required for those who became infected with COVID, isolated for five days, and are returning to campus on days 6-10 after testing positive.

Many schools took a more neutral stance. For students who trickled in and out of the five schools tucked into the former Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, the end of the mask mandate mostly came without much drama. Several students there said the mandate had not been particularly controversial and some weren’t even aware it had ended.

Brian Bautista, a junior at STAR Early College High School, kept his mask on because he has a lengthy subway commute (where masks are still required) and the school’s hallways feel packed with students. 

“I don’t want to infect anybody else in case I have it because I still spend an hour on the train,” Bautista said. He said he’s vaccinated and had COVID over winter break.

Yonathan Delosantos, who also attends STAR, decided to ditch his mask because he said it makes his ears feel itchy, and it’s harder to breathe through it.

“It doesn’t really matter to me because I’m fully vaccinated,” he said, noting that most students kept their masks on but no one seemed upset with his decision.

Rosealee Magloire, a senior at STAR Early College High School in Brooklyn, decided not to wear a mask in school on Monday. (Alex Zimmerman / Chalkbeat)

About 68% of students at the school are fully vaccinated, higher than the rate among other 6-12 schools, which stands at 63%, according to city data analyzed by Chalkbeat. Some students said they were required to be vaccinated to attend in-person classes at Brooklyn College, which has a partnership with the school. Delosantos said he hopes the city initiates a vaccine mandate for students, something Adams has suggested he’s open to, especially as he said some students still show up to school even if they’re feeling sick.

Polling suggests that most New York City residents have not been clamoring to end the city’s mask mandate. A Siena College poll conducted in mid-February found that 64% of New York City respondents felt the city should wait for data from early March to make a decision about school mask mandates. Just 26% said the mandate should have already ended.

The debate about whether to remove masks is complicated by the fact that there is no definitive evidence about how important they are in keeping coronavirus transmission down in schools. There is evidence that surgical masks (and other high-quality options such as N95s) are effective at reducing the virus’ spread in other contexts and little reason to doubt that would apply to schools as well. Research on any harms connected to face coverings is also slim.

Ten-year-old Priya Lee said she wished the city hadn’t rescinded the mask mandate because she has a seizure disorder that her family worries could flare up if she is reinfected with COVID (she was infected for the first time in December and experienced mild symptoms).

Most of her friends at Manhattan’s P.S. 19 took their masks off, as did three of her four teachers today. That made her feel left out.

“It made me miss life before the pandemic before we all started wearing masks,” Priya said. “I wish they could have kept the mask mandate because if the kids wear their masks the COVID cases will still be low.”

Still, Priya was happy to see her classmates’ faces and noted that her teacher also moved students’ desks closer together as social distancing guidelines have also been relaxed. That made it easier for her to hear her classmates, a move she welcomed.

A renewed sense of connection was also in the air at Brooklyn Frontiers High School, said teacher Eric Wilson.

“We’ve been seeing lots of smiling faces. I think a lot of people are happy to have the choice and the option,” he said. “It’s sort of like first-day-of-school vibes again.”

Wilson said about 75% of students continued to wear masks and about 90% of staff did. He experimented with taking off his mask Monday, but kept it on in situations where his co-teacher was wearing a face covering or if most of the students around him had their masks on.

He is hopeful that the mask-optional policy helps persuade students at Brooklyn Frontiers to feel more connected to each other and the school, especially since the school serves students who are behind in credits and are at risk of dropping out. But when informed of his school’s vaccination rate by a reporter — 35% are fully vaccinated — he paused.

“That actually gives me something to think about,” he said.

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