Mask On, Mask Off

Parker Adopts Mask Optional Policy in Pandemic Year Three

Mask On, Mask Off

The first Senate on the mask optional policy ended with a message from a Senate Head to “please be more respectful next week.” After Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that, following the Omicron strike, Chicago was going majority maskless, the school had hinted at a coming change in their policy. Student statements ranged from “f–– the masks” to pleas about lack of nuance. At the time, the single reported COVID-19 case at Parker was not found in the Upper School. 

Five days after that Senate, the school officially went indoor mask-optional almost two years after Parker’s pandemic shutdown and after the Omicron variant peaked. With 10 community reported and saliva-detected cases since March 9, however, many students in groups like Concert Choir, Soccer, and the freshman class have been asked to pick their mask back up. 

In the policy announced by Principal Dan Frank, community members were asked to mask on campus for 10 days following COVID exposure or diagnosis. The March 4 email also indicated that masks would be required in interactions between large groups of visitors and students, as seen on Career Day and the FWPMUN conference. 

Though those on campus are asked to keep a mask on hand, Parker’s high vaccination rate and, at the time, low viral activity, allowed the school to adopt a mask optional policy for what the email described as a “more normalized indoor schooling experience.” 

Senior Ivy Jacobs was exposed through soccer and choir before going on the Model UN New York trip. “I am fully in support of the mask optional policy,” Jacobs said. “When the policy was announced I chose not to wear a mask, but I fully understand why others would choose to continue.”

Jacobs wishes that there were more explicit, case-by-case masking guidelines – exposure in a class versus an outdoors sports time or outside the  school. “A lack of clear guidelines complicated the COVID procedure preceding and during the Model UN trip to New York, leading to disappointment because expectations had not been set with students or teachers.

Senior Tristen Tate originally planned to keep her mask on, but began taking it off after it felt more normal than anticipated to un-mask. “I was hearing how eager most people were to take the mask off, and that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t have any issue with wearing my mask,” Tate said. “The sudden shift to mask optional was abrupt for me.”

The school provided talking points to advisors for speaking with students in an attempt to make that transition less abrupt, reminding students to not ask why people aren’t wearing masks and to not note any surprises once the mask was lifted, like mouth breathing or nose size. Students were also asked to consider wearing a mask around those who they know are immunocompromised. 

A limited number of teachers have been asking students to continue wearing masks in their classroom, such as Middle and Upper School Technology and Innovation Teacher Seth Bacon. Bacon’s 8-month-old daughter, who was born eight weeks early without many of the antibodies that babies receive in the third trimester, is ineligible for the vaccine.

Bacon took his initial anxiety about the mask optional policy to Upper School Head Christopher Arnold, who was supportive of Bacon’s plan to ask students to wear a mask. His two sections of Computer Programming I, Bacon said, have been understanding and cooperative, along with classes he works with on tech integration on projects. 

Navigating professional relationships and friendships with colleagues has been more difficult. “This conversation with the students is the easiest one,” Bacon said. “Running into somebody who’s super excited that we’re unmasking, and somebody who I would otherwise be eager to see, there’s this layer of it’s awkward to be a little hesitant to engage.” 

Upper School History Teacher Dan Greenstone was excited for the mandate to be lifted, though he is now masking due to a COVID exposure. “It’s hard to teach in a mask all day, it dries your voice out, your throat feels bad, it’s tiring,” Greenstone said. “So it’s a huge relief to me, that for a couple of golden weeks there I was able to teach unmasked.”

Greenstone noticed an increased willingness for students to take their mask off as the week went on and more peers took theirs off. “It’s an adjustment for everybody and the first day or two was interesting to watch,” Greenstone said. “I know it doesn’t bother some people. I think it does bother some people to wear a mask all day.”

“I’m just thankful that the pandemic is starting to die down,” junior and Senate Head Gray Joseph said. “Having the option to wear a mask is great, and I’m really appreciative that after 2 years, I can finally walk around school like it’s mostly normal.”

Senior Noemi Ponce, who often visits at-risk family members, thought it was too soon for the school to go mask optional. “People are still getting exposed and have to wear a mask regardless,” Ponce said, “which is why I think it’s better to wear a mask and learn to accept the reality that there is still a pandemic and that things can’t go back to how they were.”

Bacon has noticed both a changed attitude towards masks – that someone wearing them is completely protected, even when talking to someone who is not – and towards the now smaller group that is still at a high risk for severe consequences if they contract the virus. “While it’s statistically good that it’s a smaller segment, I do think that some people in that segment have been forgotten,” Bacon said. “It’s hard to characterize people as being callous when I acknowledge that COVID Exhaustion is a real thing, learning setbacks for children is a real thing.”

Greenstone said that Parker has generally done a good job creating their pandemic policies. “It’s a very difficult balancing act,” Greenstone said. “A lot of people have strong feelings one way or the other, whether it be about how quickly we reopened or what our policies are within the school in terms of masking.”

Bacon wishes that within the new policy, all-community saliva screening continued and masks were required in large spaces and events like the library, auditorium, and Graderoom. “We are entering into a new era,” Bacon said, “where priorities have shifted.”