The Middle-School Mask Mystique
By Carly Mitchell / New York City
(The author, a public-school teacher, is using a pseudonym for professional reasons)
All year, I have been reminding my seventh graders in Brooklyn to pull up their masks. I would estimate that I have uttered the phrase “I don’t want to see your noses!” thousands of times. (Okay, maybe that is a bit hyperbolic, but you get the point.) I have never had a student refuse to wear his or her mask. Sometimes they just forget or simply need a mask break, which I completely understand.
After I became sick with Covid during the Omicron surge in December, I became especially adamant about the need for students to wear their masks properly. I was candid with them. “Trust me guys,” I would say, “I got sick, I brought it home to my family, and I do not want that to ever happen again. I know a lot of us are tired of covering our faces and I know we aren’t always comfortable, but we have to wear our masks, and wear them properly.”
To be completely honest, wearing a mask while teaching has had its challenges. My “teacher look,” which I felt I had perfected, is not quite as powerful when the lower half of my face is covered. (The teacher look is exactly what it sounds like– a look of disdain that involves narrowing your eyes and pursing your lips and, if the behavior is especially inappropriate, flaring your nostrils.)
I never realized until the pandemic how much silent communication happens in the classroom. For example, pre-Covid, it was easier to tell if students did or did not understand something by judging their facial expressions. And while our eyes communicate plenty– so does the rest of our face–I also found that it took me a bit longer to create emotional connections with some of my students because I could not always tell how they were feeling (and seventh graders are feeling a lot– believe me).
Another difficult part of teaching with a mask on is speaking clearly. To remedy this, many teachers with whom I work purchased microphones early on in the pandemic so that students could hear them better. While I did not do this myself (I have a fairly loud voice already), I saw how helpful it was for teachers who were tired of straining their voices.
So when the official citywide school mask mandate was on Monday, March 7th,, I was surprised to see most of my homeroom students were still wearing their masks when they entered my classroom (albeit many still wearing it incorrectly). I wondered if they had forgotten. Then, my principal, Ms. J., made an announcement on the loudspeaker about masks being optional and the importance of respecting one another’s personal decision whether to wear or to forgo a mask.
I looked around the classroom to see if any students had a reaction to her announcement. Would there be a dramatic gesture of some sort? Students peeling their masks off their faces and stomping on them? An excited stampede to the garbage can to toss away their facial coverings? To my surprise, there was barely an acknowledgement of my principal’s speech.
As the day pressed on, I took note of how many students were maskless. I would guess that out of an average class of 18 students, only four or five students opted to pass on the mask. At one point, I even heard a student admonish another for not wearing her mask: “Yo! Pull your mask up!” (though in retrospect ,this was probably his way of asking his peer to stop talking and to leave him alone– ahh, seventh-grade drama!).
By Friday, not much had changed. Most students were still donning their masks.
Now, I have some theories as to why so many students are reluctant to ditch their facial coverings. To start, many of my students live with older or immuno-compromised family members. I figure they may still be worried about getting a loved one sick.
There are also many students in my urban school who are not vaccinated. While I am not privy to these numbers, I have overheard many conversations between students who have expressed their hesitation to get vaccinated (or more accurately, their parents’ or guardians' hesitation to vaccinate them). In one such conversation, a student mentioned the United States’ troubling history of medical racism and explained that this contributed to her fear of the vaccine. Other students take issue with the fact that the vaccine is mandated by the government.
Because the vaccine is so politicized, though, I cannot encourage my students to get vaccinated, I can only ‘strongly suggest’ it.
I have another theory as to why so many students are leaving their masks on: they are young and impressionable and the past two years have seriously imprinted them in a way that is not easily shaken off. They are so used to wearing their masks that it is almost as if these pieces of cloth have become a protective layer of sorts– a thin barrier that helps them to maintain some sense of privacy and protection in such a tumultuous world.
Then again, some are probably just looking to see what their classmates will do. Maybe once more masks come off, others will follow. This is seventh grade after all.
Carly Mitchell (a pseudonym) is a public-school teacher in Brooklyn N.Y. who loves to learn, to educate, and to expose the hypocrisy of New York City politicians.