New York may be ending its school mask mandate next month.
So Chalkbeat asked some experts — New York City students — about what it’s like to wear a mask all day, whether it affects their learning, and if they’re ready to be in school without one.
Their experiences are nuanced. While some are frank about the drawbacks that masks can create, like discomfort and trouble hearing classmates, some of those same students also said it felt safer to have their mouth and nose covered.
Some were reluctant to remove masks if it could mean COVID infections spike and schools are closed again. Some can’t see themselves going to school maskless any time soon. But others, vaccinated and boosted, are ready to leave masks behind.
Evidence is slim on both the health benefits of masking in school, and any harms that could be stemming from it. Polling shows strong support among parents and adults for keeping masks. But, the third school year into the pandemic, some loud voices are pushing for mask mandates to end, citing concerns about how they may be affecting learning and socializing.
Even if the state lifts masking requirements, it will likely be up to New York City officials to decide whether staff and students in the nation’s largest country will continue to mask up.
We spoke to more than a dozen students across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan about how they feel about masking in schools. Here’s what some of them had to say:
‘People miss their old life’
Ten-year-old Priya Lee readily acknowledges the downsides of wearing masks in school.
It can be a struggle to understand what her classmates are saying and her teachers often have to prompt her classmates to repeat themselves. It’s disconcerting to not be able to see her friends smile at her.
“I miss not wearing the masks,” said Lee, a student at Manhattan’s P.S. 19.
But Priya isn’t planning to shed her KN95 anytime soon. “It keeps kids safe and it prevents everybody from getting sick,” she said.
Priya’s family was initially reluctant to send her to school in person this year because she has a seizure disorder, which hasn’t flared up in years. The family worried her health condition could be a risk factor for a more severe reaction to the virus, but they sent her to school in person because the education options for medically fragile students are extremely limited.
Priya was infected with COVID in December, though her case was relatively mild and says she has no lasting symptoms. She credits her mask with helping to protect her relatives from the virus while she was sick.
For now, Priya said it makes sense to require face coverings in school. If the mandate is lifted, she plans to keep hers on, but she wouldn’t be frustrated with classmates who take them off.
“It’s ultimately their decision,” she said. “People miss their old life without wearing a mask.”
‘It hurts my ears’
Six-year-old Oscar Guazhima Jr. said it can be uncomfortable wearing his two surgical masks to Bushwick’s P.S. 145 every day.
“It hurts my ears,” the first grader said.
But after a while, he said, he forgets he’s wearing the masks. Masking also has not made it difficult for him to understand his teacher or his friends, he said.
Lucelie Alvarez, Oscar’s mother, said Oscar is fully vaccinated. She still sends him to school with two masks because of how rapidly the omicron variant spread.
“I’m worried about their health more than anything,” Alvarez said.
Oscar said he doesn’t feel nervous about getting sick, and would still choose to wear his masks — even with the option to take it off.
“I’m gonna keep it on because it is coronavirus,” he said.
‘Better than remote learning’
For Daneil Harrison, wearing a mask in school “may be uncomfortable sometimes.” But the 16-year-old junior in Manhattan isn’t ready for the mandate to end. He worried that doing so might lead to more cases of the virus in schools — and shutdowns.
“It should be really required, because more masks equals less, you know, COVID cases. And I think that’s better than remote learning for our students,” he said.
Daneil struggled with remote learning, calling it “really bad.” Wearing a mask is worth it, if students can stay in school, he said.
“I think if you’re actually just paying attention and you just don’t let the mask bother you, then you’re good to go. I think in person is just the best way to learn,” Harrison said. “I would keep wearing one.”
‘It’s kind of disgusting’
Kris Aguirre, 15, a sophomore, enjoyed a break from wearing his black surgical mask while walking to lunch off campus. He said the masks are a nuisance. If it was no longer required, Kris said he would probably stop wearing one.
“It’s just irritating… Like when I sneeze or something? Or cough? Like, there’s like a lot of spit in the mask,” he said. “It’s kind of disgusting.”
His school gives out high-quality masks to any student who needs one, but Kris said the fit is uncomfortable so he’d rather bring his own. Despite his frustration with covering his face in school, Kris said it’s better than remote school.
“It’s just, like, something to cover your mouth. That’s not really affecting my learning or anything. But if it goes on Zoom, it’s a different story,” he said.
‘The pandemic can start again’
Destine DeJesus, who is a fifth grader at P.S. 145 in Bushwick, said her teacher allows children to take mask breaks in the hallway for a couple of minutes. Sometimes it gets tough for Destine, 10, to breathe in the mask after climbing multiple flights of stairs in her school.
“Usually I go in the corner so I’m staying away from all the classrooms, and I take my mask down for a little bit, and then I go back into the class,” Destine said.
Destine said it has not been a problem following along with her teacher because the teacher makes sure to ask the students whether they can hear. Sometimes Destine has to repeat herself to friends because some words sound muffled.
Destine would potentially be ready to ditch her mask in a month or two, but not right now, she said. She was infected with COVID around winter break, when cases began exploding citywide.
“You never know if it’s really gone,” she said of COVID. “It could still be out in the world and it can always come back and the pandemic can start again.”
‘I would never want to be maskless in a classroom’
Wearing a mask has become second nature for 18-year-old Jenny Liu, a senior at Stuyvesant High School. She said her mask helps her feel safe in the packed school, which enrolls roughly 3,300 students and can get chaotic during arrival and dismissal.
“I would never want to be maskless in a classroom, honestly,” she said. “It just feels like I’m naked in a way now.”
Masking has not interfered with instruction, and in fact, it’s been fun to be in person again, Liu said. She has, however, heard from classmates taking language classes, who get frustrated when they can’t see how their teachers are pronouncing certain words.
“Instead of the phrase, ‘Oh you’re muted,’ on Zoom, in person now it’s, ‘I can’t hear you. Speak up,’” she said of class time.
It has been tough for Liu, a co-captain of the volleyball team, and her teammates to stay masked during games and practice. Players will sometimes wear their masks below their nose or pull it forward to get an extra breath.
‘It makes me less incentivized to go to school’
Thomas Fuller, a senior at Millennium Brooklyn High School, felt that COVID cases have dropped enough to merit going maskless in schools. The mandate could be reinstated if cases were to increase again, he said.
“I’m boosted and vaccinated, and everyone I know is as well,” said Fuller, 18, about why he feels safe to ditch his mask.
“Some people see [masking] as a good thing, they feel more comfortable with it. But for me personally, I feel like it’s hard to talk, hard to breathe. It makes my face hot. It makes me less incentivized to go into school because I really don’t like wearing them,” he said.
Fuller hasn’t had much trouble hearing or communicating at school being masked, though some of his teachers now wear microphones because students couldn’t hear them too well, he said. At the same time, students have learned to advocate for themselves and speak up when they can’t hear their teachers, he added.
‘I’m still not comfortable’
When Avery Gibson, 11, returned to her Queens middle school after winter break last month, it felt like she was sent home with a set of rapid tests from her school almost every day because she was repeatedly exposed to the virus.
That experience during the height of the omicron surge makes Avery and her mother, Sheree, wary of ditching masks for now. Still, Avery said she is already exposed to maskless students. Her peers often take their face coverings off on the hour-long bus ride to school, and students in her class sometimes lower their masks to speak.
“A lot of kids in my class take off their mask, and I don’t like it,” Avery said, adding that she keeps her disposable mask on. “I’m still not comfortable with all these viruses going around and people not being vaccinated.”
Avery, who is vaccinated and recovered from a COVID infection over the summer, said she would feel more comfortable about ditching the mask mandate in schools if face coverings were removed in other places first without lots of people getting sick.