As mask mandates begin to lift, schools have been one of the last places where masks are required. As of March 12th, 2022, the state will no longer require masks in California schools. However, throughout the pandemic, most schools have relied on county guidelines to direct their health policies around COVID-19. Generally, state and county guidelines have been aligned, but now that case numbers are low and vaccination rates are increasing, we are seeing for the first time that the state is saying one thing and a county is recommending another. For example, in San Mateo County, they are still strongly recommending masks in schools, even though there is no state mandate. School administrators have worked incredibly hard to make decisions throughout the pandemic to follow and stay current with health mandates. Now, in the eleventh hour, it feels a bit like schools are being abandoned by the officials’ support and will have to make their own choices to follow the state of California or the county recommendation.
Schools and families are facing a mask dilemma and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about masking. Here are some things I am asking people to consider while deciding the best option for their family.
Have conversations with students that are not fear based– It is important for adults to keep their own emotions neutral when talking to students about changes in COVID-19 safety policies. Stick to the facts with students and allow them space to draw their own conclusions. We need to be honest with teens that in California, we are in a much different situation with COVID-19 than we were two years ago. We need to let students know that we have a lot of new information about COVID-19 because the science has progressed. Our communities are moving toward protecting high risk individuals instead of focusing on the community as a whole. Explain to them that this is a huge victory and new mask policies are a result of the community working hard together to get to this point.
Recognize that all students have different home situations– Throughout the pandemic we have seen that families have had different levels of comfort with COVID. Some students may come from a family who feels comfortable gathering or traveling, while other students may have an immunocompromised family member that they feel personally responsible for protecting. Both are valid life experiences and all students need to feel safe at school. It is too much of a burden for a teenager to feel that they are personally risking a family member’s life by going to school and being around other people. For any nervous students, suggest that they make an appointment with their primary care doctor to talk about their personal risk of getting COVID-19. For the most part, high school students are in a very low risk category. The Stanford Parenting Center is a great resource for families and schools to help students through the pandemic and you can also follow them on social media.
Social emotional effects of students masking for two years– We have to remember that in any given high school, the 9th and 10th graders have never attended high school without a mask. These grades especially could feel discomfort in school if mask policies change. We will not know the developmental side effects of having faces covered at school for years to come and currently, I am seeing a divide in comfort level with masks. Some students are ready to rip their masks off and never wear one again. Others have felt safe in school behind the mask hiding their faces.
Outside the cafeteria, I recently heard a student say “you haven’t seen my face all year, I am not ready to show it to you now.” This breaks my heart. Students have developed relationships behind their masks and some got braces, developed acne, or got new facial piercings, without anyone knowing. These are all normal teenage milestones, but the teen might not be ready to show the world yet because the mask was a layer of protection from peer scrutiny.
Some students are worrying that when they take their masks off, their classmates might not like what they see. I have heard the term “catfishing” used in this situation. Students feel like if they take their mask off with friends their friends might say they “catfished” them and are not the person they expected them to be. School support staff need to be ready to be able to handle cases where students are feeling more self conscious and do what we can to build their self esteem without a mask. It is going to take time and practice!
Pros and cons of mask optional in schools– Implementing a mask optional policy in schools allows students, faculty, and staff the ability to choose the amount of safety they want for themselves and gives flexibility. However, my concern is that judgment will be placed on people’s choices. We have to set up our students for success regardless of their choice, and I do not want to see an increase in mask bullying. Pictured is a social media post by Dr. Hina Talib, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine, with helpful things we can teach teens to say if they encounter a mask bully.
Regardless of what schools or individuals decide to do about wearing masks, remember to practice kindness. We don’t know everyone’s backgrounds, medical history, or family situations. If anything, normalizing wearing a mask in the winter for cold and flu season could be a silver lining of the pandemic if we work together to care more about community health than personal comfort. Collectively, we have been through a lot since 2020 and everyone deserves grace during the transition away from wearing masks.