Education and Health

Valley Streamers react to lifting of mask mandate


For the first time in two years, students were able to walk into school without masks after Gov. Kathy Hochul’s rollback of the statewide mask mandate on March 2.

At a news conference on Feb. 28, Hochul cited high vaccination rates and “the steady decline over the past several weeks in cases and hospitalizations from Omicron” as she called an end to state-enforced mask use in schools.

“Because New Yorkers have stepped up, we can confidently remove the statewide mask requirement in our schools,” Hochul added. “This is a huge step forward for our kids and communities.”

In Valley Stream, school districts were quick to adopt a mask-optional policy. In District 13, where school officials have faced mounting pressure from several parents over the mask mandate, Superintendent Dr. Judith LaRocca sent a letter to families on March 1, notifying them that “starting tomorrow, wearing a mask will be optional indoors, on the bus, and during afterschool programs.”

“This is a significant change for all of us, and it is important that families talk to their children about their own decision and the importance of respecting the individual decisions of all students,” the letter read.

In a statement to the Herald, District 24 Superintendent Dr. Don Sturz also stressed the need to respect students’ personal choices on wearing masks. “As mask optional implies, there have been those students and staff who have chosen to go maskless while others continue to wear masks, whether that be because of health challenges or personal reasons,” Sturz said. “We respect the decision each individual student and staff member has made.”

With the number of Covid cases dropping, many students have expressed optimism that a new normal is finally within sight. “When talking to my peers … some of them really enjoy the fact the mandate was lifted,” said Central High senior Emily Monfort, “because it’s a step toward a positive direction … and they haven’t seen their peers’ faces in a long time. At some point, they say, the masks had to be taken off.”

The new policy has also brought a sigh of relief to many parents who say their children have had difficulty coping with the challenges and anxieties of constant mask use. “Just like many other kids, my daughter was struggling while forced to mask at school,” said a District 13 parent who chose to remain anonymous because of privacy concerns. “She was forced to focus on the mask rather than her work, and she couldn’t understand why the only place she had to wear a mask was in school when she interacted with the same children outside of school daily without a mask.”

“She was generally more irritated and depressed,” the parent added. “She didn’t want to go to school most days. Now that the mask is off, she is thriving socially and academically. School is now the highlight of her day.”

But as the initial thrill of going maskless has worn off and students have regained some sense of normalcy, concern still lingers over whether the call to make masks optional may have been made too soon amid Covid’s potential to resurge.

“[Other students] were not liking the fact the mandate was lifted, because they’re still worried about the effects of Covid, and some don’t even have all their vaccinations yet,” said Monfort. “I still choose to wear my mask, because it’s something I’m used to and for my comfort to protect myself, but I don’t mind if others choose not to wear a mask.”

Other students at Central seemed to agree. While they are free to go maskless, Monfort noted that “the majority of kids continue to wear masks, and most of the educators choose to wear their mask to match the majority’s comfort levels. . . . Everyone understands it’s a personal choice.”

School officials also reminded families that while masks may be optional, most Covid-19 guidelines remain in place.

“Our district prioritizes health and safety,” LaRocca said, “and will continue to use a layered prevention strategy to mitigate the spread of Covid in our schools.”

“All other safety protocols (home wellness monitoring, temperature checks, social distancing, sanitizing, contact tracing, etc.) will continue,” District 30 Superintendent Dr. Nicholas A. Stirling said. “We will continue to notify families of positive cases in school.”

Mixed mask-wearing in school has left some students confused about their perceived lack of control over what they have to do to stay safe and protect others, according to Dr. Juann Watson, a psychotherapist and a professor of mental health and psychology at Kingsborough Community College.

“Some students [who are my patients] are insecure about their decision-making ability . . .,” Watson said. “I’ve seen my patients show a heightened sense of anxiety that they live with constantly. The little ones . . . will not take off their masks and they will not sit in the classroom. They want to stand because they’re so afraid of the pandemic. Some of them are quite paranoid, and don’t really know how to express themselves that well.”

When dealing with the tension their children feel from mixed messaging about masks, Watson recommends that parents engage with them “in a gentle and loving manner” that respects them as individual decision-makers.