On Monday, March 14th, students will no doubt observe a massive change when they arrive at school. That is because, starting Saturday, March 12th, it will no longer be a requirement under the district for students to wear masks in school, outdoors or indoors.
This shift is a culmination of weeks of negotiations and considerations between state officials as California has emerged from the dregs of the highly-contagious Omicron variant. Although this decision passed on a state level, the choice ultimately fell on school districts to decide what was best for their schools. The San Juan Unified School District recently announced that they will be going through with lifting the mandate – masks are no longer required, but they are still highly recommended. That means that the final choice rests on students themselves to decide whether or not they wear a mask in school. Needless to say, there is a big debate on whether this measure is a good idea.
On one hand, many believe this is a crucial step towards learning to live with COVID-19 rather than actively combatting it as we’ve been attempting. This is a sentiment that has overtaken the country as we draw closer to completing two full years since the initial stay-at-home order in March 2020. There has been growing impatience in many students, parents, and teachers alike for the mask requirement in schools which many believe has had significant mental and social repercussions, particularly in younger children. Parents have spoken out about their kids having trouble making friends or interacting with others due to the mask acting as a literal barrier for speech.
Masks also pose a legitimate consequence for students “who are deaf or have other language delays and rely on reading lips to learn speech and reading,” says a parent and family medicine doctor from Oakland. Masks have made it so much more difficult for these students to learn, and they have also made life in general more difficult to navigate.
Many also believe that because COVID cases in the past few months have been overwhelmingly mild and manageable, the true danger has passed for the virus and it will soon be as commonplace and harmless as the common flu.
In contrast, there is a strong feeling that this decision is arriving too soon and that we are becoming complacent in this temporary lull of urgency. There had been discussion of lifting mandates and easing COVID-19 restrictions back in early summer of 2021 as well before the Delta variant emerged in July and August and the danger grew again.
There is also a substantial concern that many students, especially younger-aged students, have yet to be vaccinated. In fact, data shows that only around 1 in 4 elementary school students have been fully vaccinated, and vaccinations have been lagging significantly since the beginning of the year. And while numbers for students aged 12 to 17 are much higher (just under two-thirds being fully vaccinated), it is still not anywhere near the numbers to reach herd immunity at around 70 to 90 percent.
While some have suggested that vaccinations or frequent negative test results for non-vaccinated students become required in order for students to forgo masks in school, that responsibility would then fall onto the district and, by default, the school staff.
What it comes down to in the end is how students will individually react to this new choice they have and whether or not they will remain conscious and vigilant as we move forward with the idea of living with COVID-19. If everyone remains cautious and the situation is highly monitored, this may actually be a positive move. However, it is also difficult to put faith in such a large and diverse population of students. Everyone has witnessed others who have been complacent or dismissive of COVID-19 from the beginning, and it is not too much to assume that this behavior will only become more pronounced now that masks will not be enforced as a rule.
In the end, only time will tell how this measure will affect students. The only question left now is what you will choose.