To Mask, or Not to mask

A look into the challenges behind establishing a school mask policy in the midst of legal, scientific, and social pressures

Sofia D'Angelo '22 and Liam Matney '22

         On January 15th, Glenn Youngkin gave parents the power to “elect for their children not to be subject to any mask mandate in effect at the child’s school or educational program” by issuing Executive Order 2 on his first day in office as Governor of Virginia. Across the state, the order was received with mixed reactions. Some schools, such as local Bishop Ireton, were quick to transition to “mask-optional.” Others, including local school district ACPS, sued the governor in an attempt to defend “the right of school boards to enact policy at the local level, including policies that protect the health and well-being of all students and staff.”

        Here at SSSAS, administrators were faced with the challenge of balancing the scientific and legal implications of mask mandates, all while dealing with the pressures of a community of parents and faculty with strong yet varying perspectives on the matter. According to Head of School Kirsten Adams, “[priority] number one for us is medical, and understanding the medical recommendations and guidelines for what we can and can’t do around masking.”

        When it comes to determining whether it is safe to remove masks or not, the school focuses on two key numbers. “The metrics we're really looking at are our internal positivity rate, which has to be below 5%,” said Mrs. Adams. “We’re [also] looking at the city of Alexandria—total new cases per 100,000 persons in the last seven days.” When the school’s internal positivity rate is below 5%—which it has been, with the exception of a week in early January, noted Mrs. Adams—and the city of Alexandria has a low transmission rate, the school will transition to “mask-recommended,” which finally occurred during late February.

        How, though, was SSSAS legally able to enforce mask wearing for over a month after the governor’s executive order? According to Mrs. Adams, the key was in the “ambiguity” of the executive order, which never explicitly stated that the order applied to private schools as well as public schools. “If we are legally obligated to follow Executive Order 2, of course we’ll follow it; we follow the law,” said Mrs. Adams in an interview on February 16th. “But there's some ambiguity right now. So as that ambiguity is being resolved, we are sticking with the mask-required.” Now that SSSAS is mask optional, and in compliance with Executive Order 2 and Senate Bill 739, which officially made masks optional in Virginia schools, the school faces less legal pressures when it comes to masking.

         In terms of personal comfort level with going mask optional, the SSSAS community is split. A survey sent to the Upper School’s students and faculty received 164 responses. Almost half of the students who filled out the survey (48.8%) answered that they would be in support of going mask optional. 

         Mr. Taylor, a math teacher at SSSAS, said “At that point, the mask is just kind of theater, we are just checking the box saying we are wearing a mask, but what's the point if they won’t protect us from the variant.” 

         Mary V Carnell (‘22) agreed: “The science shows that cloth masks actually do nothing, and so the fact that they're not requiring us to wear N95’s shows that this is all performance. Even the CDC states cloth masks are not preventing the spread of Covid, so who are we protecting by wearing cloth masks?”

         Although the official CDC website noted on January 28, 2022 that well-fitting disposable masks offer “more protection” than loosely woven cloth products and “finely woven products,” it is “well-fitting” masks approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), including N95s, that offer the most protection against COVID-19.

         According to the survey, sent on February 8th while the school still required masks, only 24.5% of survey respondents wore an N95 mask, while 75.6% wore one thin mask. Both Mr. Taylor and Mary V agree that, given the lack of effective masking throughout the SSSAS community, the school might as well transition into a mask-optional phase.