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Unmasking: Policies and Reactions

On February 9, Governor Baker announced that Massachusetts’ statewide mask mandate in schools would expire at the end of the month. This news comes as other New England states, like Connecticut and New Jersey, announced the end of their own mask mandates come March. Education Secretary James Peyser stated, “During the past two years, the impact of COVID on children has caused a strain on their mental health, emotional well-being, and academic success. We are relieved to now be in a place where we can provide young people additional relief from COVID-19 restrictions.” As universal restrictions are lifted, it is up to individual private schools to decide how they want to proceed with masking. 

Many private schools, like Dexter-Southfield, made the decision to go mask-optional right as the state deadline expired on February 28. Other schools, like Nobles and Greenough, are already mask-optional. Belmont Hill and Winsor took slightly different approaches to the changing guidelines.

In an email to the Winsor community, Head of School Sarah Pelmas cited Winsor’s vaccination rate, ongoing testing program, and decreased transmission rates as reasons behind her decision to allow Winsor students and staff to go mask-optional. She also mentioned that, after spring break, repopulation testing, similar to that conducted after winter break, will be conducted to ensure the safety of the Winsor school community before the start of the new masking policy that is currently scheduled for early April. However, masks will still be required for school buses, the nurses’ office, and potentially community gatherings.

 Responding to this decision, Winsor Institutional Researcher Ms. Labieniec said, “Throughout the pandemic, Winsor took a fairly conservative approach to our COVID safety protocols, choosing to err on the side of caution when there was ambiguity, and that approach did a really good job keeping our community safe and healthy. I believe we thought about the mask-optional decision in the same way.” 

Student reactions were fairly positive even though their mask mandate is lasting longer than that of other schools. Lindsay Whelan ’23 said, “Every single time Winsor has made a COVID decision, they have been cautious and safe. So when they say we are ready to go mask-optional, I will feel ready to go maskless.” 

Throughout the pandemic, Belmont Hill’s masking policy has aligned with state and local requirements while accounting for the school’s own community testing. During an all-school gathering on February 18, Belmont Hill’s Headmaster Greg Schneider announced that the school would move to a mask-optional policy on February 24, as long as the number of positive COVID cases remained low. The weekly testing program continues to render minimal positive cases, and an email was sent out to the Belmont Hill community on February 24 announcing the school’s new guidelines. 

The new regulations allow students to be maskless during classes, lunch, school meetings, and while competing in sporting events. The only time students are still required to wear masks is while spectating at indoor sporting contests, which is because the town of Belmont maintains its indoor mask mandate. Sporting events are open to the general public, and masks thus must be worn in order to abide by the town’s requirements.

When Brady Paquette ’25 was asked his opinion on the updated policy, he stated, “As I am not much of a mask-wearer myself, having this option makes a huge difference in my daily life at Belmont Hill.” Ezra Lee ’25 commented, “The return to an optional mask policy at Belmont Hill was long-awaited and anticipated by many students. This change gives many students and teachers a sense of reassurance, as the decision brings us closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. Head of the Upper School, Mr. Bradley, shared “There are the skeptics, and there are the ones who are all in, but I think we’ve been good about it [COVID-19 precautions] and stayed healthy…[I’m] hopeful we’ve seen the last of masks this year. But I could imagine them coming back if a new strain appears.”

Overall, students and faculty at Winsor and Belmont Hill are ready to move on from masks. The future remains uncertain, but there is hope in the air as both schools move towards spring. Most students are excited to see each other’s unmasked smiles once again. 

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