Masks are becoming optional in New York City public schools, a major turning point for the nation’s largest school system as it approaches the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown.
As of Monday, public school staff and kids in kindergarten through 12th grade can choose whether to wear masks or not in buildings and on school buses.
Social distancing guidelines for schools are also being lifted, including in classrooms, cafeterias and auditoriums. The city is still requiring people returning to school after being home with Covid-19 to wear masks and to social distance as much as possible.
The city is not lifting the mask mandate for kids between 2 and 5. Officials say it’s because they’re too young to be vaccinated. Kids under two haven’t been required to wear masks.
Going into Monday morning, parents, kids and educators were split — many fervently supporting the change, many equally passionate against it and many in the middle who said they hope this is the right move, but aren’t sure.
Infections in the city are down, but they are not gone: 77% of city adults are fully vaccinated, but only about half of public school children are. While a handful of schools have student vaccination rates over 90%, hundreds are still below 25%, with a range in between.
Robin Lester Kenton, parent of two elementary age kids in Brooklyn, said she was feeling excited and optimistic.
“We are trusting the data on outcomes for vaccinated folks, since we know teachers and staff are vaxxed and our kids are unlikely to be hospitalized,” she said. “I know there is no one solution here that makes everyone happy but seeing the impact of the pandemic on my kids, I am choosing what is best for them in this moment.”
Joscelyn Ramos, a senior at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, said she planned to stay cautious, especially because her mother has a health condition that puts her at higher risk. “Personally I’m still going to choose to keep my mask on,” she said. “I think it’s weird to go in on a random Monday and say, 'Yeah pandemic’s over, I don’t need a mask.' I think it’s still something to watch out for.”
Patrick Hunt, an assistant principal, at a city high school said he thinks unmasking will strengthen instruction and boost student learning. “I’m super optimistic and think we’ll be surprised by how much relationships and instruction will improve,” he said.
Jessica Cohen, a teacher at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, said she worried her school – at more than 200 percent capacity where the ventilation is lacking – wasn’t safe enough to strip a key mitigation. She said she worries about bullying. “I know there is going to be [a] divide in my school and I think it is going to largely be along race lines,” she said.
Meanwhile, many parents of very young children who will have to stay masked for now said they were furious and some planned to rally at City Hall.
“I can’t see a sound rationale for the decision to continue masking 2- to 4-year-olds in NYC schools while ending the mask requirement for older students, regardless of their vaccination status,” said Leah Sandals, a parent of a pre-schooler in Brooklyn. “This age group is at the lowest risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, and they have the most to lose from having their faces concealed from teachers and classmates as they develop language and social skills. What's more, kids this age already spend significant time together indoors unmasked during snacks, lunch and naps. When they are in masks, they’re often loose or below the nose. The idea that masking toddlers is providing any kind of meaningful risk mitigation is a stretch at best.”
When asked about keeping masks for 2- to 4-year-olds, Mayor Eric Adams had said on Friday that data shows that age group is "more likely to be hospitalized.” But during an interview Monday, he said that could change if cases remain low.
“We want to be extremely protective," he said. "Once we look at this number and are not getting a spike from our K-12, then we can come back and look at those younger children.”
In announcing the change Friday, Adams also said he wanted educators to see students’ faces again: “We want to see the faces of our children ... We want to see their smiles. We want to see how happy they are. We want to see when they're feeling sad so that we can be there to comfort them and a mask prevented us from doing so for almost two years. And it's happy to see those smiles again.”
However, he said staff and students should be able to make their own choices without facing pushback or bullying. “I know there are some who say they still want to wear their masks — you can,” he said.
Adams said he is willing to reinstate the mask mandate if the health conditions change.