A Question of Freedom vs. a Question of Safety: As School Mask Mandate Lifts, NYC Parents Divided Over Their New Choice

Parents, left, rallied to #UnmaskOurToddlers, and, right, called for #MaskingForAFriend (Asher Lehrer-Small)

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It was an uncharacteristically warm Monday morning in March as Najja Plowden walked his son Zayin, 5, to class at the Brooklyn Brownstone School.

Like all other public school parents, Plowden faced a choice: On the day New York City’s school mask mandate was lifted, should his son keep his on or take it off in the classroom. 

“I’m going to send him with it, but he can take it off if he wants to,” said the father, explaining that the family has taken COVID seriously, but feels that K-12 masking can’t go on forever. His son contracted the virus and recovered, which gives Plowden a level of confidence that Zayin will be OK, even if he chooses to bare his face.

“I just want him to have a normal school experience again,” said the Brooklyn dad.

Najja and Zayin Plowden on their way to school Monday. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

On Friday, in an address held in Times Square, Mayor Eric Adams declared that the nation’s largest district would officially be doing away with its face-covering requirement and also rolling back proof-of-vaccination requirements in restaurants, gyms and movie theaters. 

It’s a move that comes on the heels of a tremendous shift away from school mask mandates nationwide in recent weeks, with only 37 percent of the largest 500 districts now requiring that students cover up compared to 60 percent a month ago, according to data from Burbio, which has tracked school policy through the pandemic. 

In late February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance, now allowing schools to go mask-optional in areas where transmission is moderate or low.

New York City’s quick pivot — done with the support of the teachers union — breaks from the pattern of other top districts, which have been slower to adjust. Chicago Public Schools will wait another week before going mask-optional March 14, the district announced Monday, in a move the Chicago Teachers Union said violates a safety agreement requiring masking through the end of the school year. A similar agreement to continue universal masking appears to still be in effect in Los Angeles Unified School District, even as the state plans to lift its mandate March 11.

The change in policy is dividing New Yorkers, many of whom believe it’s too early to roll back pandemic precautions while others are embracing the change.

“I don’t think anyone is comfortable with it,” said Ebonee Smith, a special education teacher at Restoration Academy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She entered school on Monday clad with her mask. “It hasn’t been a gradual release.”

Justin Spiro, a social worker in a Queens high school, chose to drop his mask on Monday. “I feel very protected by my three shots,” he said, adding that at times, masks have made his job more difficult.

“Counseling behind a mask is definitely challenging,” he told The 74. “We rely, subconsciously, on so many facial expressions for showing empathy and showing understanding and expressing emotion.”

Similarly, Park Slope dad Dan Kurfist, whose daughter is in kindergarten, said he was “thrilled” when the city lifted its mandate. 

As for his daughter, she ran into school screaming, “No mask today,” when he dropped her off Monday morning, Kurfist said, estimating that about three-quarters of students were unmasked.

Special Educator Ebonee Smith will continue wearing her mask in school, she said. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

Face coverings will still be required for NYC kids younger than 5 in pre-K and child care, the mayor stipulated on Friday. That age group is not yet eligible for vaccination and has been overrepresented among all pediatric hospitalizations, according to a recent study from the New York State Department of Health. 

About 75 people  gathered in City Hall Park Monday demanding that the mask rules be lifted for 2- to 4-year-olds, holding signs that read “#UnmaskOurToddlers.” One parent, attorney Michael Chessa, said he planned to sue and to seek an injunction lifting the ongoing mask mandate for preschoolers.

Renana Teplitsky and her son at the #UnmaskOurToddlers rally. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

“I’m done with the mayor forcing my kid to wear a mask while he spends all day in preschool chewing on it anyway,” said Renana Teplitsky.

“Mask mandates have been lifted everywhere else, so it doesn’t make sense to punish kids 2 to 4,” said Liz Bernstein. “We’re super pro-mask,” the mother-of-two added, but because her 12-year-old child will now be exposed at school, she doesn’t see the use of continuing to mask her toddler. “Kids have siblings,” she pointed out.

Meanwhile, a group rallying under the hashtag #MaskingForAFriend gathered last week, imploring Adams pre-emptively to reconsider his plan to scrap the school mandate.

Parents called for students to continue #MaskingForAFriend on the Tweed Courthouse steps on Wednesday. Lupe Hernandez stands front row in a maroon sweater. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

To Lupe Hernandez, a Tribeca parent of two who is immunocompromised, the mask-optional policy makes her fear for her family’s safety. She herself had COVID twice and is still suffering from long-term side effects, she said. She’s concerned that NYC schools serving low-income students of color tend to have lower student vaccination rates than whiter, more affluent schools. Citywide, just over half of students are fully vaccinated.

“I think this is way too early” to drop masks, she told The 74. If it weren’t for the fact that her 8-year-old has a paraeducator who works with him at school, she would have considered keeping him home on Monday to avoid sitting next to unmasked classmates. The Department of Education reported that attendance was at 89 percent Monday.

“Masks haven’t prevented my child from developing,” she added, saying her son learned to read while attending school wearing one.

Adams on Friday acknowledged the wide-ranging viewpoints on how to navigate this current stage of the pandemic, joking that the city has “8.8 million people, 30 million opinions.”

“It’s reasonable to consider removing masks at this time,” said researcher John Giardina, who emphasized that vaccination continues to be an effective way to stave off severe coronavirus outcomes. 

In mid-February, the Harvard University Ph.D. student was the lead author on a peer-reviewed study spelling out exactly how many cases unmasking in school might trigger depending on factors like vaccine coverage and local transmission.

“There is no one-size-fits-all policy for a city as big as New York City,” he cautioned, emphasizing that individual school leaders may want to look at the vaccination levels of their own community to determine the best public health decision.

The breakdown of parent opinions tends to fall along racial lines, Farah Despeignes has noticed. Despeignes is a Bronx mother of two and president of the Community Education Council in District 8. Herself a former educator, she decided to homeschool her children in September rather than send them back to the classroom amid a pandemic. In her experience, Black and Hispanic families, who were more likely to have lost loved ones to the virus, seem to be more cautious in their approach to school COVID mitigation measures.

“I understand that whiter populations may see it more as a question of freedom. But I can tell you, here, it’s not a question of freedom. It’s a question of safety,” she told The 74. “A lot of these parents and children live in multi-generational homes. They have comorbidities that can be fatal.”

Still, many families fall somewhere in the middle.

On Monday morning, Sonia Maynard dropped off her grandchildren — all masked — at P.S. 093 in Brooklyn. 

“We’re waiting to see how everything goes,” she told The 74.

Some of her grandchildren’s classmates, Maynard knows, might not be covering up, and that doesn’t bother her. After some days or weeks, it’s possible her grandchildren may join them — “We’ve got to get back to some kind of normalcy,” she said — but not today.

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