By Friday, I was still reaching for it. Before first period began or right after eating my lunch, I had an urge to make sure I had it on. After two years, the act became instinctual, but after a week I figured I might be able to shake the impulse. I was wrong.
I’m talking about my facemask, of course. After New York City Public Schools made masks optional this week, the mental and emotional fatigue that came with wearing mine drove me to unmask Monday morning and not look back. (I never actually reached into the basket on my desk to retrieve it this week, but I came close several times.) I willingly and conscientiously followed every Covid guideline during the last two years. But now, well, I’m just over it. Teaching with muffled words, tasting cloth every time I sucked in air, and pinching my mask over the bridge of my nose every 5 minutes isn’t appealing to me anymore. I felt “face naked,” as I told my students this week, but it was liberating. Not only could I breathe deeper and clearer, but I could do so with a relaxed mind. Plus, after being smashed to face and throat for so long, my beard reveled in its newfound independence.
It didn’t come as a total shock that I was in the minority. Most students and staff at my school retained their masks. The number of fully unmasked (and partially unmasked) individuals narrowly increased as the week went on, but the number remained fairly constant as of yesterday.
When I got word last week that the mandate was going to be lifted, I began thinking a lot about how my students would react. In addition to masking for personal safety and for the safety of their families, one aspect of unmasking that I don’t think is talked about enough now that mandates are dropping is the social consequences it holds for students. In other words, I suspect that many of my students continued to mask this week for purely social reasons.
For teenagers, their image is everything. And between cameraless Zoom sessions and wearing a mask, many of them haven’t been fully seen in an academic context for two years. A pimple or a bad hair day is enough to keep them home from school, so I knew many of them weren’t going to ditch their masks the instant they had the option to do so. And I don’t blame them at all. There’s simply too much on the line. Their mask offers them protection. It’s a social safeguard that shields them from pointing fingers and gossip. It maintains their self-confidence and social capital. Over time, as more kids slowly reveal their noses and then chins, it will become less necessary for them to attend to this social dimension of unmasking, but that’ll take some time.
For those who unmasked with me week, it was heavenly to be able to see them and interact with no barriers between us. It was strange and even laughable seeing each other’s faces, but I sorely missed this foundational element of teaching. As I savored occupying unsanctioned space with them in the classroom, hallways, and cafeteria, I thought back to the spring of 2020. It was then that remote learning introduced an unnatural and immeasurable distance between us. It took two years, a lot of stress, and many intermediate measures for that distance to be closed. The journey back started a year ago with optional in-person learning that included masks, real social distancing, and plexiglass. Then there was fall 2021 with full in-person learning with pretend social distancing and masks. In December, when the Omicron bomb went off, remote learning scared the hell out of me by dragging us back to its dark lair for a week. Fortunately, when we returned in January, at-home testing ramped up, and attendance improved. Lifting the mask mandate was the last straw.
Others have the right to feel differently this week, but I was rejoicing. Seeing (some of) my students in their entirety again — and also being seen by them — was vitally important to me and my teaching. So while I still may have the occasional urge to reach for my mask, I’m feeling relieved and restored. Thus, the deep breaths I took in my classroom these last five days did more than fill my lungs with unfiltered air, they filled my heart and my pedagogy with unfiltered hope. We’re getting closer.