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Smiles – and ambivalence – as mandatory masking ends at many Mass. schools

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Students disembark from the bus on the first day without mandatory masking in Haverhill schools. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Students disembark from the bus on the first day without mandatory masking in Haverhill schools. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

The state mask mandate lapsed in public schools across Massachusetts on Monday.

The change felt like a big deal for Charlie Hartwell, of Haverhill. At age 7, she’s young enough that she can’t really remember school without them, "because I'm so used to it; it's going to feel so weird to see people's bare faces.”

Charlie — short for Charlotte — said she noticed how some of her classmates at Silver Hill School chafed under their masks. It's not just the kindergarteners, she said.

"I hear a lot of the older kids, surprisingly. They're whining about like, ‘These masks are so itchy. They're too small or too big,' " she explained. "And most kids are like, ‘Hey, masks keep you safe!’ ”

Charlie’s dad, Nate Hartwell, reinforced that message at home. He helps run the pharmacy at the Lahey Hospital in Burlington, where he prepares COVID treatments among other duties.

Over the past two years, he worked to explain the evolving public-health strategy to his eldest daughter. “We talked a lot about how the masks — and a lot of people getting vaccinated — help protect people who are at risk," Hartwell said. "Charlotte's been really great about helping out with that.”

In a polarized debate over masking, Hartwell said he’s a true moderate: Mask mandates are worth enacting when the virus is spreading quickly, he said, but can be relaxed when the risk is lower.

On Monday, the Hartwells' school community appeared almost evenly split on masking. About half of kids bounded in, masked up. At least for the start of the day.

In front of the school, art teacher Jenny Arndt stood on bus duty and noted an under-appreciated virtue of masks: They’re one more patch of protection against the morning's brutal winter wind.

But in just her second month of teaching, Arndt said she sees a benefit to dropping them.

"I’m trying to learn over 500 students’ names right now. And it’s a little difficult when all you can see is their eyes and their hair," she laughed. "I'm looking forward to being able to see their whole faces. I think that’s gonna help a little bit."

When the Haverhill School Committee voted to do away with masks on Feb. 10, the city’s longtime mayor, Jim Fiorentini, said he’d prefer to wait a couple of weeks after the February vacation, or until the city's positivity rate had dropped below 5%.

But Fiorentini was the only “no” vote, leading to the end of the mandate and cheers from a sign-toting crowd of parents.

Still, in-school masking is not over statewide. Local mandates remain in some districts for now, including nearby Lawrence, as well as Chelsea and Springfield. Boston health officials are scheduled to discuss the future of their city's school and other mask mandates on Tuesday.

In other places, the choice to mask — or not — fell to individual families. Parents like Mihaela Rusu, who serves on the Quincy school district's parent advisory council for English learners.

Rusu said the overwhelming majority of parents in the group shared her anxiety that the state's decision to end the mask mandate seemed too sudden. At the same time, she said, the mandate has been "very hard" on her daughter, who's in the fourth grade and still learning English.

"So we made an agreement: she's going to keep it for 10 days," Rusu said. Thereafter, "if she wants, I'm going to let her take it off."

Truth be told, Charlie Hartwell in Haverhill doesn’t love masks, either. Her dad remarked that her younger siblings may never have to deal with the itchiness, or the irritation, when they go to school. 

When his daughter asked what happens if COVID cases surge again, Nate Hartwell suggested a pragmatic approach.

"If it gets worse again," he told his daughter, "we all understand that we may have to put masks back on and listen to the scientists and the doctors about what the best thing to do is." Charlie responded with an enthusiastic nod.

In most districts, school opened Monday — without mask requirements — for the first time in years. As of Monday afternoon, administrators had reported few issues. Kids, their parents and teachers, are hoping that it stays that way.

This segment aired on February 28, 2022.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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