Masks are off in K-12. What’s next, UFT?

This Wednesday, Governor Hochul officially removed the statewide mask mandate, leaving it up to local school districts to decide what they’re going to do. Because New York City has Mayoral Control, Eric Adams gets to make that decision for us. And he just did: masks are now optional as of 3/7/2022. UFT members seem fairly divided on whether or not they agree with the decision. However, Michael Mulgrew has made it clear that the Unity-led UFT won’t fight it either way, saying ‘it’s not our decision to make’ and ‘we’ve reached herd immunity.’ 

Over the last few days, I wrote up a few questions about what would happen if we did unmask:

  1. Unlike teachers, students are not given KN95 masks each week. We know that surgical masks, like the ones provided to students, do not effectively protect the person wearing the mask, whereas KN95s do. Now that the DOE has made masks optional, will they provide higher quality masks to students, many of whom are still unvaccinated, live in multi-generational households, or have sick family members?
  2. Some students are terrified of COVID. A few of my own have personally expressed to me how worried they are to be in school once the masks come off. If we make it easier for them to get COVID in schools, will we finally provide students with a remote option or will we continue to compel them to come into unsafe buildings?
  3. There is a huge inequity in that some neighborhoods/schools have high rates of vaccination among students and parents, and other neighborhoods/schools have very low rates. Will safeguards be different in these schools with vastly different risks? To that end, will there be different safety (or masking) expectations for unvaccinated vs. vaccinated students?
  4. One of the most problematic parts of the DOE’s COVID policy for me is that they’ve made policies that might have made sense under low rates of positivity, but then kept them in place when positivity was high. For instance, our levels of testing, social distancing requirements, and decision to stay in-person were made when positivity rates were low. But none of that changed in any major way when rates exceeded 20% back in January. Right now it’s low-ish positivity that is being used to justify ending the mask mandate. My fear is that if the rates go back up, we’ll either keep masks optional indefinitely or be too slow to bring mandates back. 
  5. When the CDC made the clearly political decision to reduce masked social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet (political because it was only reduced in schools), a lot of us were skeptical. If our students are now to be surrounded by unmasked and unvaccinated peers, does that social distancing change? Does testing change? Lifting masking requirements seems like something that would make a heck of a lot more sense if other safeguards were  also introduced.

Based on the guidance that just came out, with the strange exception of students under 5 and the staff that work with them, there have been no modifications to safety policies with attention to the above concerns. In fact, they also got RID of social distancing requirements. I’m a science teacher. If the medical science is really behind unmasking, it behooves the UFT to listen. But, we also have to understand that even with some scientific backing, this is a ‘utilitarian’ decision, one that reduces safety for individuals as part of a ‘pros-cons’ assessment for the larger group. To that end, I say if we’re going to follow the science to make a politically expedient political move, we have to follow the science equitably. Want to unmask? Then let’s make sure to do it safely (and probably differently) in schools with widely different contexts, that all other safeguards (and potentially new safeguards) are in place, that individual students have access to high end masks that protect themselves (since they can no longer rely on others for protection), that we have a viable remote option, and that if positivity does come back up, masks definitely go back on. Right now, based on the new guidance the UFT released, it’s clear that there are no plans by either the DOE or UFT for any of that to happen. And while I’m as excited for signs of normalcy as anyone, that makes me nervous. 

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