It was announced by headmaster Schneider that after President’s Day weekend that Belmont Hill would be proceeding into the foreseeable future with a mask optional policy. This shift occurs while other schools, such as Winsor, still have a mask mandate until early April. The policy has sparked controversy as to whether we should proceed with this new mandate or whether this decision was made too early and we should remain with a mandatory mask mandate.
Winsor Con Optional Masks:
As mask-mandates lift and the rate of new COVID-19 infections decrease across the United States, there has been a lot of confusion regarding whether or not to wear a mask. “This is the hardest thing of all, because it’s not just about the risks and benefits to you,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s about the risks and benefits to the people around you.”. A school’s first priority should be the safety of their students. A premature mask-optional policy in schools may not only put students at further risk, but also delay the coveted “return to normalcy”! Therefore, it is crucial that schools implement their mask-optional policies later in the year.
In areas where the mask mandate was removed, increases of in-school transmission were seen. In New Jersey, for example, when mask-optional policies were introduced to schools, the amount of infections increased from 28 cases the week prior to over 419! “If people are really eager for [mask mandates] to end, I recommend they not end them, that they put in place a data-driven approach that turns on the mask policies when we need them when there are big surges,” said Dr. Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health law at Boston University. As of February 28th, 2022, Suffolk and Middlesex counties have the highest transmission rate in Massachusetts, making up 40% of all cases in Massachusetts. As seen in New Jersey, introducing a mask-optional policy now will only increase risks and transmission rates. If Winsor and Belmont Hill want to keep their school communities as safe as possible, then they must wait until later to implement this policy.
Furthermore, by keeping mask-optional policies until case numbers are even lower, we can reduce the probability of returning to online school. Audrey Wang ’24 comments, “It was really difficult to keep myself focused on Zoom.” In addition, we can continue to be able to host engaging school-wide events and to participate in joint events with other schools. “Although school events end up being kinda awkward, I [still] always get excited for them,” Wang continued. It is our responsibility to do our part in helping the greater community as private institutions. We should strive to keep not only our students and faculty safe and healthy, but keep the communities around us safe and healthy. Returning to a normal society efficiently depends on each individual doing their part, and it begins with wearing masks until COVID-19 case numbers have dropped to a safer level.
It is better to be safe than to be sorry! Whether it is wearing a seatbelt or wearing a mask, individuals in our community should prioritize their health and others’ health even when there is a lower risk of harm.
Belmont Hill Pro Optional Masks:
Maintaining the current mask optional mandate would allow for a sense of flexibility while also keeping the students and faculty safe. It is important to remember that a return to optional masking means that each student and faculty member has the option to wear a mask. And so, if a teacher does not feel comfortable with this new mandate they have the power to implement a mask mandate in their classroom. This return to normalcy also benefits those teachers who wish to have optional masking in their classrooms, since in many cases, it creates a more intimate connection with their students. Teachers, after two strenuous years, are finally able to put a face to the name of the students whom they have taught for the last six months.
Data from both the town of Belmont and the city of Boston show that cases are on the decline after the Omicron surge. Additionally, within the Belmont Hill school testing program, very few, if any, covid cases have been reported in the last weeks of testing. Recently in Belmont, Covid cases have dropped drastically over the past month. Four weeks ago the average number of new weekly cases per 100k people was up to 87. Since then it has been cut in half each week and last week reported just 14 new cases. Similarly in Boston, albeit with a much larger population, this trend has been the same. During the week of January 24, an average of 940 cases were reported and now, in the last week, the average is down to 218.
Furthermore, testing at Belmont Hill has allowed for cases to be tracked, contained and isolated. With the results from this weeks testing, only one pool tested positive and as per the guidelines, all the students and teachers in that pool have been alerted. This method of testing has proven to be very effective. Even when the need arises for individual testing, we have seen the potency of single person PCR tests. These would continue to be instituted after long weekends or breaks, as done in the past. Plus, since each test is a rapid test, results come back within the next one to two days, allowing for any potential cases to be quickly caught and dealt with. Finally, vaccination rates in both schools are in nimiety with Belmont Hill and Winsor bearing 99% and 97% vaccination rates respectively.
While the school has returned to allowing a mask to be optional for its students and faculty, there will still be a requirement for visitors. The visitor mandate also extends to spectators, who will still be required to wear masks while watching our sporting events. Belmont Hill students will also comply with other school’s mandates during away games. Mandating masks for visitors and spectators helps to maintain our bubble, such that the negative results we get on Monday will stay negative throughout the week.
In conclusion, the right time for a mask optional mandate is now, not in an ambiguous number of months. Because of the benefits of returning to normal, teacher’s holding the power to create a mandate in their classroom, the downward trend in cases, weekly testing, and mandating visitors to wear masks, it is abundantly clear that it is now safe to take off our masks.