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When do NYC schools get to lose the masks?

When do NYC schools get to lose the masks? 1

Just shy of a thousand students pass through metal detectors to enter the building where our Brooklyn high school is housed. They were installed in the mid 2000s (nobody recalls exactly when), back when the building was considered dangerous. Anyone who was a student then is long gone (the youngest middle schoolers would be at least 27 today), and the 83rd precinct in Bushwick is far safer now by any measure. But students still pass through them each day.

Going through a scanner isn’t the worst thing in the world. But they have more downside than you might think. They jam when it rains, making kids late for school. Fire drills take a lot longer because the whole building has to scan back in. Since metal detectors tend to be in higher-poverty schools, these delays steal valuable instructional time from kids who need it the most.

In many cases, they also set up otherwise avoidable confrontations between students and safety agents. And of course it’s hard to measure how much it might grind on a child’s soul to be criminalized a little bit every day just for coming to school.

And, if we’re not careful, masks will become the new metal detectors.

In both cases, schools understandably adopted an emergency intervention at a time of crisis. Also both cases, prioritizing a very specific type of “safety” buries the toll that these interventions take on children.

Parents protest New York’s school mask policy before a Board of Education meeting in Kings Park, New York on June 8, 2021.
Newsday via Getty Images

This is not some breathless (pun intended) piece of anti-mask propaganda. According to the Mayo Clinic, masks mitigate COVID spread and don’t lead to hypoxia.

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At the same time, for many kids they are, at minimum, uncomfortable. For ones with auditory challenges, sensory processing issues, or other disabilities, they can be debilitating. The World Health Organization is clear that children under 5 should never be required to mask. For ages 6-11, a variety of factors should be considered, including the impact of the mask on the child’s learning.

There are benefits to masking, but there are also costs, and we need to be honest about that.

All told, the reopening of schools in New York City has been a success. Despite fear mongering and hysteria from some quarters, hospitalizations and deaths have declined. Nearly three-quarters of eligible residents have received at least one vaccine dose.

Yet our mask policies in schools still apply as though we’re in April 2020, when ambulance sirens blared at all hours and we wiped down our groceries before we entered our homes.

All children over 2 are required to mask in day care; some have been forced to leave if they can’t tolerate one. Kindergarteners have to wear masks outdoors during recess, despite the fact that at 3:00, those exact same children walk across the street to a playground and continue to play, maskless.

The city’s official guidance for lunch is that kids should eat outdoors to the extent tolerable by the weather (as the temperature drops, get ready for some creative definitions of “tolerable”); if they must eat indoors, they distance as much as possible and all face in the same direction. Lunch and recess are crucial times for young people to develop socialization, but their ability to do so is hindered by these strictures.

Students and teachers wear masks in the classroom on the first day of school in the Jericho, New York.
Wearing masks can distract a student’s ability to hear and communicate in classrooms.
Newsday via Getty Images

The sense of crisis seeps into greyer areas at school. Stories abound on social media of kids being yelled at for letting their mask slip, or restrictions on kids’ ability to drink water. Unvaccinated kids are still at much less risk than vaccinated adults. But while unmasked adults can pack the Garden to cheer the Knicks, kids endure restrictions that grownups would never tolerate.

Excessive mask policies with no end in sight also risk undermining vaccination efforts — the true pathway out of the pandemic.  Our school is in a community that has been vaccine hesitant. With a lot of work, we’ve gotten our student vaccination rate to 75 percent (70 percent fully) with 100 percent of staff fully inoculated.

Massachusetts has set a vax rate of 80 percent as a threshold for schools to go mask-optional. The chance to be able to remove masks might help drive vaccine uptake. But we can’t offer that tantalizing incentive.

School Students Going to Buses, Wellsville, New York.
New York’s mask mandate in schools makes no sense when students go maskless by 3 p.m.
UCG/Universal Images Group via G

Across the country, schools and districts are starting to lift mask mandates. Even if New York City isn’t ready to go that far, we can make some common-sense adjustments. We can stop masking kids under 12 (and definitely under 5); we can let kids go unmasked outside; we can allow schools to permit unmasking once we reach a certain vaccination threshold.

Our elected leaders need to provide our kids with some normalcy. There is no sight more beautiful than that of a smiling child. It’s time for everyone to see those smiles again.

Arthur Samuels is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of MESA Charter HS in Brooklyn.

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