Masks in School: Benefit or Burden?

Cassidy Canzano and Charlotte Manolian, Journalist

On March 13, 2020, the world that we once knew began to go into lockdown. Restaurants, malls, and most importantly schools were shut down indefinitely. As time went on and more became known about the coronavirus and how it is spread, more places were able to begin reopening, in stages. Eventually, several COVID-19 vaccines were developed and enabled access to those who were in contact daily with other individuals. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker required all schools to reopen for full-time, in-person instruction by April 26, 2021. When this date came around, both students and teachers were required to wear masks in the classroom since the vaccine wasn’t available for many people at that time. Once the vaccine became more available, it sparked the discussion of whether or not masks would be required to start the 2021-2022 school year.

Many schools, including Ipswich, required students and faculty to wear masks from the beginning of the school year until October 1, 2021. Once that date passed, governor Charlie Baker decided to continue the state’s mask mandate until individual school districts reach an 80% vaccination rate among students and faculty, which would allow them to seek permission from the state to drop the mandate. Along with the required mask mandate, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all students and faculty over the age of two years old wear a mask in school buildings regardless of their vaccination status. But, what should schools do? We decided to speak to a variety of individuals for feedback on this ongoing debate of whether to end the mask mandate in Ipswich.

We spoke to Dr. Richard Manolian, a board-certified physician in Massachusetts, about his professional opinion on masks in school. He said, “I think that masks should not be mandated, and I think that it makes sense for that age group that it’s not required. We should follow the science on this.” Dr. Manolian is one of many doctors that believes we should not have to wear masks once IHS hits the 80% vaccination rate. 

We also spoke to Ipswich High School senior Morgan Bodwell about her thoughts on the mandate. Similar to Dr. Manolian, Bodwell believes that masks “are unnecessary because a lot of people don’t wear their masks correctly so I’m getting exposed either way.” This is a common thought among many since it’s often in classes that one can constantly hear teachers asking students to wear their masks properly. Students are just going to continue to push the rules to their limit until either the school district reaches the required vaccination rate or the administration decides to end the mandate. 

As of November 4th, the school is currently at 59.5% vaccinated but this data is parent-reported which means that it is likely higher than that number. When compared to the Massachusetts state COVID-19 data that is released weekly, the parent-reported number is much lower. According to the state data, 76% of 12 to 15- year-olds are fully vaccinated and 84% of 16 to 19-year-olds are fully vaccinated per capita. This means that the average percent fully vaccinated between ages 12 to 19 years old is 80% which is the minimum percentage that is required to end the mask mandate. 

From a medical standpoint, wearing masks might not seem like a big change for medical professionals like it was to everyone else. Doctors have had to wear masks throughout their whole careers for protection from viruses other than just COVID-19. Even still, masks are causing more problems than solving them. For students in high school, masks feel like a trap on top of the feeling of being stuck in school all day, which is where mask breaks come in handy. 

Even adults agree that mask breaks are helpful, as conveyed by Dr. Richard Manolian when asked his opinion on mask breaks. “Yes, I do [think they are useful], physically and mentally. I think students would feel like they get a break from what they perceive as an unbearable requirement, and then there’s also a free flow of air and oxygen to help offset any feelings of confinement.” Coming from a medical professional, it speaks volumes that Dr. Manolian believes mask breaks are imperative to mitigating the impacts of COVID-19. 

COVID-19 will be with us for more than the near future, and our communities need to find ways to live with the disease. Vaccinations, following the science to track outbreaks, and encouraging social distancing, masking, and other precautions when positivity rates are elevated are all ways to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic. But forced masking when the science doesn’t back it up (i.e. vaccine rates of higher than 80%) is not going to solve anything. It’s time to let science drive policy. With jabs in our arms, we are all ready for the next phase of living with COVID-19. Pull your mask down and breathe!