Keep the masks on in our schools

Don’t get me wrong: Enforcing the mask policy as an educator just plain sucks. Some students just won’t comply. But COVID isn’t done with us yet.

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A student wearing a mask sits in the lobby of Roberto Clemente Community Academy on Jan. 12.

A student wearing a mask sits in the lobby of Roberto Clemente Community Academy on Jan. 12. Masks are still necessary because COVID isn’t done with us, an educator writes.

Pat Nsbong/Sun-Times

Over the weekend, a downstate judge sided with families in 145 school districts across the state to lift a public school mask mandate. Also over the weekend, America surpassed 900,000 deaths due to COVID.

I received notice that the high school where I teach and the elementary school my children attend were not among the schools where families filed suit. As a result, the mask mandate still stands for us: My school and my children’s school will continue to make teachers and students wear masks.

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After I read the email, I breathed a sigh of relief. I am a librarian in a very busy high school library that at least 200 students a day visit, all of them bringing in their own germs to our tables, computers, and the air we breathe. A hallway also cuts through the space, which is another way for germs to enter.

My children are in an elementary school that provides weekly testing and does a decent job of contact tracing. The district ran a vaccine clinic for students a couple of weeks after the Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines for 5-to-12-year-olds. But my children are still in classrooms with 20 to 25 students, and they also share hallways, libraries, gymnasiums, and lunchrooms with many other students.

Mask-wearing is a necessary precaution.

Don’t get me wrong: Enforcing the mask policy as an educator just plain sucks. To give a ball-park number for my high school, I’d estimate that around 70% of students wear their mask correctly when entering the library. My assistant and/or I ask the other 30% of students to adjust their masks and wear them correctly. Many do so — but a few students don’t.

I have called parents, sent students out of the library, and written discipline referrals for those students who refused to wear their masks correctly. The situation reminds me of the days when I taught in schools that required uniforms. It was a daily chore to make sure everyone looked a certain way. Now, I often get similar eye-rolls and lip-smacks from students when I enforce the mask rule, as many of them view mask-wearing as an issue of compliance — not health or protection — and so wearing it around their chins or under their noses is an act of teenage defiance.

As an educator, it also just plain sucks to wear a mask. They are difficult to talk through for long periods of time, and it’s difficult to hear students’ answers too. But I put one on every morning and take it off once I leave the school because I still believe in the science that proves that they work.

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I understand that people are done with wearing masks. I want to be done with them too. But being done with masks means being done with COVID. And as our death toll clearly shows, COVID and all of its variants are not done with us.

Schools are supposed to be safe havens for our students. In fact, our society has always asked many of our schools to operate as public sanctuaries for our students — by providing extended hours, meals, and technology for both in person and virtual learning.

But taking away masks in our schools at this time sends the wrong message to our children and our families. COVID is not over, and coupled with vaccines— which are not mandated — masks are still our best form of protection from this virus, whether we like them or not.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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