Why Liberal Suburbs Face a New Round of School Mask Battles

David Fleishman, the superintendent of schools in Newton, Mass., an affluent Boston suburb, said he recently received a message from a parent who pushed for ending mask mandates in classrooms.

But first, he said, the individual felt the need to assure him, “I am not a Trump supporter.”

While Newton, like much of Massachusetts, is mostly liberal and Democratic, Mr. Fleishman said that when it comes to masks, “there’s this tension.”

The battle over mask mandates may be moving to liberal-leaning communities that had been largely in agreement on the need for masking — and bound by statewide mask requirements.

Now that Massachusetts will lift its school mask mandate on Feb. 28, joining other liberal states like New Jersey and Connecticut, it will be up to individual school districts like Newton, and nearby Boston, to decide whether and how quickly they want to rescind their own mask rules.

But a well-organized chorus of public health and child development experts, alongside parent activists, say that masking can hurt children academically and socially, and are calling for the return to a semblance of normalcy.

Newton and Boston, with downtowns about 10 miles apart, give an idea of how two politically liberal and cautious districts are approaching the choice — and how and why they may come to different decisions. The debate will involve science, but also politics, race and class, as well as a swell of emotions.

Some see masking as a potent health tool and a symbol of progressive values. Others have come to see face coverings as an unfortunate social barrier between their children and the world. And many people are somewhere in between.

In Newton, 65 percent of elementary school students, 79 percent of middle schoolers and 88 percent of high schoolers are vaccinated, according to the district. The district is 61 percent white, and 14 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Some prominent leaders in the community say they are ready to relax restrictions.

In Boston, where vaccination rates are somewhat lower — significantly so for Black and Latino children, who make up most of the district — the public school district says it has no plan to end its mask mandate.

Neither do some of the city’s charter schools.

David Steefel-Moore, director of operations for the MATCH charter school network, said he had heard “no negative blowback” on masking from parents, who are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. “We have the other side of that: ‘My child told me there is a kid in their class with the mask down around their neck. What are you doing about that?’”

For students in Boston who may be living with a grandparent or family member with underlying health issues, the end of mandatory masking could put children and teenagers in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between their family’s sense of safety and fitting in at school, said Gayl Crump Swaby, a Boston Public Schools parent and professor of counseling who specializes in issues of trauma for families of color.

“They should not have to be making these kinds of decisions; they are young,” she said.

Some parents might even prefer online schooling to classrooms with unmasked peers and teachers, she added.

In Newton, one of the most prominent voices in the masking debate is Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and a parent of students in the district. He serves on the district’s medical advisory group, and has become an outspoken advocate for unmasking children as Omicron recedes.

The group will meet this month to formulate a recommendation on masking for the elected school committee, which will make the final decision.

Dr. Jha does not believe that his own children have been seriously harmed from masking, and does not believe that the pandemic is over.

But he wants to unmask soon, he says, in part to offer some social and academic normalcy, given that he thinks future coronavirus surges in the United States are likely to require masking again — potentially in the South over the summer and in the North this fall and next winter.

He argued that with new therapeutics to treat Covid-19, there is little upside this spring to masking in regions, like the Boston area, with relatively high vaccination rates and plummeting infections.

“If not now, when?” he asked. “Because I don’t foresee a time in the next couple of years that will necessarily be that much better.”

Vulnerable teachers and students, he said, could stay safe by wearing high-quality masks even when those around them are not covered. Throughout the pandemic, he pointed out, virus transmission inside schools has been limited, including in some places where masks have not been required.

Dr. Jha’s advice, however, is not necessarily reassuring to educators who have seen guidelines change frequently over the past two years.

In many left-leaning regions, virus safety plans have been painstakingly negotiated between teachers’ unions and districts, and they may be complex to roll back.

“The knowledge of the virus changes, the variants change, the facts change, which is really frustrating,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

Teachers’ unions have been among the strongest supporters of masking, pushing in recent weeks for their members and students to have access to medical-grade masks and respirators, such as N95s, KN95s, KF94s and surgical masks. But individual teachers disagree on how important masks are, and how they are affecting students.

In Newton, Suzanne Szwarcewicz, an elementary school English-language learning teacher, said masks had presented challenges for young children who were native speakers of languages like Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hebrew and Spanish.

Last school year, Ms. Szwarcewicz experimented with teaching English in a mask with a clear plastic front so students could see the shapes her lips and tongue made while enunciating. But she gave that up when those masks quickly became damp and uncomfortable. She now uses videos to demonstrate proper pronunciation, and sometimes lowers her own mask briefly while standing several feet away from students.

Ms. Szwarcewicz said she would be comfortable with students taking off their masks, and would feel safe knowing her own mask offers protection. Still, she would gladly march in support of colleagues if her union voted to protest any relaxation of masking rules, she said.

The president of the Newton Teachers Association, Mike Zilles, indicated that there may, indeed, be resistance if the school committee chose to make masking voluntary. The state and district have recently eased in-school virus testing, contact tracing and quarantine procedures, leaving masks as an important remaining defense, he argued.

Feelings of pandemic burnout are common among teachers.

“We were thrown in there, asked to risk our lives, and nobody really acknowledged that,” Mr. Zilles said. “We were the guinea pig.”

Dr. Jha did acknowledge that academic studies were unlikely to sway those fearful of unmasked students, but said he anticipated consensus growing over time, as students in neighboring districts shed their face coverings without outbreaks.

“People have to emotionally and mentally get to a point where they are comfortable with this,” he said. “If the kids are all masked for the next two years, that’s a problem. I will push back pretty hard. But if they’re masked the next month or two, that’s fine.”

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