Sound Off — NYC Students & Masks: Amid Child Vaccinations, Teachers and Parents Make the Case For Why Schools Should (and Shouldn’t) Roll Back Rules

Students at PS 133 in the Brooklyn on Sept. 13 (Michael Nagle / Getty Images)

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New York City’s 5- to 11-year-olds became eligible for the COVID vaccine as of Nov. 4, and more than 10,000 doses were reportedly injected over the first two days that shots were made available on school campuses.

As a result, Mayor-Elect Eric Adams voiced his support earlier this week for getting rid of the mask mandate in schools, asserting, “I think it’s imperative if we can find a safe way to do it, I look forward to getting rid of the masks.”

That marks a clear split from current Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has issued warnings to maintain current guidelines: “I would keep the masks in place, at least in the short term because they’ve really worked.”

A Xavier High School student on Sept. 29 in New York City (Noam Galai / Getty Images)

Across the country, opinions and policies are in flux. Earlier this week in Florida, Miami-Dade Florida Public Schools — one of the largest districts in the country, and one of the few systems in Florida to defy the governor when it came to mask mandates — announced the masks would now be optional for students. Also this week, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who spent most of COVID supporting local efforts to keep schools from reopening due to the risks to teachers, has slightly amended her tune:

So as the percentage of vaccinated students in NYC schools continues to climb, the new question on the horizon appears to be: Should America’s largest school district start to roll back some of its emergency safety measures?

I posed the question on my mailing list and via social media to educators and families; teachers from across the country offered the below advice for their Big Apple colleagues.

Texas-based Vanessa Lal writes, “I absolutely think covid mitigations should be rolled back. I teach in a mask optional school that came back in the late summer during the delta surge sans catastrophe.”

Oregon’s Lindsay Lyon agreed, “The masks need to come off. Now that all of these age groups have an opportunity to protect themselves, we must end this.”

Another Oregon teacher, Christina Kennedy, reiterated, “Wearing a mask myself and trying to teach kids to read that are wearing masks is absolutely absurd. They do not wear them correctly and they spend more time messing with them than anything else. They are not helping to prevent the spread of anything–they still pick their nose ?, they put them on their heads, they rub their face often, they put their fingers in their mouths, they wear them under their chins etc. I have decided I want to TEACH and not be the mask police, so I am no longer trying to get kids to wear them correctly, but somehow the people making the rules think they are effective. I am not allowed to teach a reading group at school without all of us wearing masks…but if we were at a restaurant across the street, we could all be maskless at the table. Say what?! NO MORE (mandatory) MASKS IN SCHOOLS!! I challenge anyone to actually visit an actual classroom (that isn’t staged for a visit) and you will very quickly understand and see with your own eyes how silly it is to think that masking kids is effective or working at all.”

A teacher gives a lesson to masked students in their classroom at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on Sept. 27 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

From a teacher in Missouri comes, “I am exhausted from the burden placed on teachers to somehow keep a virus from spreading by enforcing mitigations which likely have little impact when one considers our students go home and are interacting with family, friends, teammates, all without mitigations.”

In NYC, a teacher offered, “I am looking forward to relaxing so many of the rigid rules! I am glad the vaccines are available to those who want them. As hard as we try, children will be children and no amount of masks or “social distancing” is really helping anyone!”

Parents, similarly, had a wide range of passionate opinions on the matter: 

Some New Yorkers, like Katherine Haver, agreed with those teachers saying now is the time to start moving back to normal: “Masking and distancing need to end now. Masking, as well as restrictions like eating outside while distancing (my younger one must face a wall, not talk and sit on the pavement) and other restrictions (masking even while outside, no playing tag or soccer even outside, no class picture, no singing, etc.) have real harms on kids’ ability to socialize. It’s time to move on.”

Ambarish Chandra, who moved from Canada, had similar thoughts. “I absolutely support rolling back all safety measures once kids have had a chance to be vaccinated, which would be when schools reopen in January. It is useful to compare our experience with NYC schools to schools in Toronto. None of them insist that kids be masked during recess. They also permit two snack breaks during the day, as well as mask breaks. Students can pull down masks to drink water at their seats. By contrast, here in NY, my son has no snack breaks, no mask breaks, must go into the hallway to drink water, and is masked even during recess.”

Children line up to go back into their classrooms after taking part in a bunny hop and class portrait in the schoolyard at at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on March 25 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

Another parent, who requested anonymity, confirms, “Our school let us know that starting in January, kids will no longer be forced to eat outside (they currently eat outside even during sub freezing temperatures). They will, however, no longer be allowed to speak during lunch. I’m shocked that this is the sole “improvement” we can expect once our children are vaccinated. As of now, they will continue to be masked indoors AND outdoors, even while playing sports.

Other parents, who also asked their names not be used, were adamant that it’s too soon to jettison restrictions:

MK: “Once I heard the vaccine was available I knew the next step would be the request to loosen safety protocols. But the vaccine is not a cure and students can still become infected and transmit the virus. As a parent this is just too much too soon.”

MC: “Safety measures should not be relaxed. They should continue for the duration of the school year. Maybe relax procedures during summer school and see how that goes first.”

AZ: “I don’t believe they should roll back the emergency measures until the start of next school year. This will allow time for all the kids whose parents want to get them vaccinated to complete their vaccine series and to build as much immunity as possible.”

AM: “I am against relaxing any safety measures unless 70% of the class and 70% of school students are fully vaccinated.”

Given staff vaccination mandates, and the early numbers of child vaccines being distributed, that 70% threshold may certainly be possible. But on the flip side are evolving public polls that show a growing number of parents across the country saying they do not plan to vaccinate their youngest children

For parents looking to move beyond masks, priority number one might come far away from the school yard, in convincing their neighbors to change their mind on the shot. 

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