Over two years ago, on March 12, 2020, California announced an official lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the mask mandate for California has come to a partial end.
Brent Stephens, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) superintendent, shared a brief on Monday, March 7, stating that indoor masking will now only be “Strongly recommended.”
“This afternoon the district updated our school board meeting agenda for the Wednesday, March 9 meeting to include our decision to follow the state and the City of Berkeley Public Health Department decision to strongly recommend, but no longer require, masking at all BUSD schools,” Stephens wrote.
On Monday, February 28, Gavin Newsom announced that the mandatory mask mandate for schools would become optional after March 12.
Between February and March, there have been 242 confirmed COVID-19 cases in all of the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). Compared to the 653 confirmed cases in January alone, BUSD COVID-19 numbers decreased by 63 percent.
Surrounding school districts in the counties of Marin, Napa, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Sonoma have announced similar changes to masking policy. All will be following the state’s updated masking guidelines, changing them to “strongly recommended.”
Maia Wachtel, a Universal Ninth Grade (U9) English teacher, shared her view of the new masking guidelines.
“I trust the guidance from the health department, and I am not an expert, so I’m gonna defer to the folks who are,” Wachtel said. “[However], right now, as long as it is strongly recommended or more, I will continue to mask.”
Alex Day, a U9 Ethnic Studies teacher, expressed his concern on how the shift in COVID-19 guidelines might affect classroom environments.
“If there are now more kids who feel uncomfortable in a classroom with someone who isn’t consistently masking, that could make [the classroom environment] worse,” Day said. “So because [masking] is something that doesn’t really bother me much and could help other people stay safe … I am going to continue to wear a mask.”
In an informal social media survey by the Jacket of 286 BHS students, 199 students voted for keeping the mask mandate in place while the remaining 87 voted for it to be lifted.
Noe Linvill, a sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), noted the divide that may come with optional masking.
“[Students] have such strong ideas about what wearing a mask means and how that relates to your political image,” Linvill said. “So I think that some students are going to have certain ideas about other students that might not be accurate. People are going to get canceled for [not masking], which I think is so weird, because it’s their own decision.”
Romy Jervis, a senior in AC, expressed her opinion around masking in school and BUSD’s decision to lift the mask mandate.
“I hate wearing masks at school,” Jervis said. “I feel so stuffy and gross, I’m tired of it… [and] I do feel it’s the right time to do it. I think people are probably really antsy to move forward with [COVID- 19] restrictions.”
Wachtel remarked on how she believes different students are going to respond to the mask mandate being lifted.
“A lot of students are, I think, not going to take off their masks, due to [COVID-19] anxiety, due to family anxiety, also I think just due to self consciousness,” Wachtel said. “I think we’ve been trained to not have a lot of our faces shown and a lot of people, especially a lot of teenagers and kids, I think, are having a lot of facial anxiety.”
Chiara Hyman, a BHS freshman, expressed similar concerns about how the new mask guidelines might affect students’ perceptions of each other.
“Nowadays when everyone talks about mask fishing and stuff it seems pretty minor, but definitely has an effect [on students],” Hyman said. “It might just be surprising to see everyone without a mask on because I think we all fill in peoples’ faces.”
Hyman went on to explain her reservations around the lifted mask mandate, wondering if it will last.
“We had a similar thing last May when we thought the mask mandate was going to be lifted and it turned out it couldn’t,” Hyman said. “So I’m interested to see how this will progress and how long it will last.”
Jervis shared her excitement about the new shift in COVID-19 protocols at BHS and her experience in the classroom after the mask mandate was lifted.
She also commented on how her classroom environment has impacted her decision to wear or not wear a mask.
“I feel comfortable not wearing a mask… [but] I also think it depends on the teacher and how they’re conducting the class,” Jervis said. “If a lot of other students are wearing masks or not, that kind of [influences] my opinion.”
Jervis continued and talked about the shifts she had noticed in her classmates’ behavior. She commented on the excitement and energy she saw surrounding the new changes in the COVID-19 protocols.
“People are talking about it a lot, and people like to talk to other people without masks on … [and have] much higher spirits in that way,” Jervis said.