Fairfax, Virginia, U.S.A. – In public schools all over Virginia, where a new policy barring mask mandates was recently passed, students and staff are navigating the new normal.
This new policy lets parents opt out of their children wearing masks at school and prevents school districts from adapting the policy in response to infectious transmission rates.
At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in northern Virginia, students and teachers try to respect each other’s opinions while keeping themselves and their families safe.
“I think it’s a little early” to stop wearing masks, said Adam Smith, a physics teacher at the school.
“I think we’re all looking forward to the day when we don’t need to wear masks,” he said, “but this feels like we’re rushing a little too quickly toward that.”
Some students are also wary of unmasking so early, scared they might catch the virus and spread it to their families.
“Whether we like it or not covid is still there,” said Sara Elanchezhian, a junior at the high school. “The fact that there’s no virtual learning option, the fact that you have to be in a dangerous situation to go to school and learn is just horrible.”
This new policy has varying effects on students and staff. While some bask in the freedom of taking off their masks, others are worried about their health.
School board members encourage respect and understanding towards individual choices, but this becomes difficult when there exists no such thing as an individual choice. When it comes to covid-19, one person’s decision affects everybody around them.
“It’s not really a personal choice because it affects other people,” said Elanchezhian. “It is interpersonal. Not wearing a mask makes another person feel unsafe and takes away their rights to feel comfortable at school as well.”
Some teachers addressed their classes about the new mask policy.
Smith appealed to physics students to continue to wear masks. He acknowledged that some staff and their family members are immunocompromised and they were concerned about their students unmasking.
While he could not require his students to wear masks, he asked them to wear masks as a personal favor.
Smith said that while the new policy was not affecting how he runs class, he tries to be more cautious about covid-19.
“I am probably taking covid tests at home a little more often. Just to be on the safe side,” Smith said.
When students start to feel at risk in school, classroom dynamics also start to change.
Some students who wear masks do not want to sit next to unmasked students and ask for new seats, creating yet another challenge for teachers who then reorganize seating charts to accommodate everyone.
While some teachers are willing to accommodate these requests, others have explicitly stated that they will not change any student’s seating based on their mask preferences.
Richa Gupta, a junior at the high school, said seating changes put teachers in an awkward position. She said teachers have been told they are not allowed to discriminate based on masking preferences, but the decision is difficult if students don’t feel comfortable in their current seats.
“What are teachers supposed to do?” Gupta asked. “Are they supposed to accommodate everyone, making their own lives a lot harder?”
Teachers have a lot of influence on the masking outcome in their classrooms, and if they communicate that they are comfortable with students unmasking, more students unmask in their classes.
“It really depends on how the teachers communicate and mask,” Gupta said. “If the teachers say that they are ok about unmasking and tell us not to worry about it, more people don’t wear masks in that class.”
Similarly, Gupta added, when teachers said they are more comfortable with students wearing masks, students in the class are more likely to wear masks.
The teachers own decisions to unmask also influence students.
Nasifa Akhter, a junior at the school, said that when her teachers unmask, she tries to stay neutral towards them, but it is difficult.
“If you are someone who takes this pandemic very seriously and you do have family members who are compromised,” Akhter said, then you pay attention to what the teachers decide.
“You try not to judge but it’s kind of hard,” Akhter said.
In addition to influence from teachers, students also influence each other.
If part of a friend group was not wearing their masks, Akhter said, then others could feel pressured to do the same.
“I think that’s what the new mask mandate does, it creates a sense of peer pressure where you see people without masks and you feel this urge to also take off your mask,” said Akhter. “You basically pretend like you are not in a pandemic anymore.”
Whether one chooses to wear a mask or not, many in the school feel it is important to take into consideration other people’s safety and comfort. In navigating these new changes, it is important to remember that one person’s choice affects others.
“I just want everyone to feel comfortable, regardless of their opinion,” said Oviya Jeyaprakash, a junior at the school.
Wearing a mask protects other people, according to Jeyaprakash.
“It is about wearing a piece of cloth on your face for your community.”
Lyat Melese is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.