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With masks now optional, Mass. students are learning to adjust03:33
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Students file out through the main corridor of Hopkinton High School during dismissal. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students file out through the main corridor of Hopkinton High School during dismissal. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When Quincy Public Schools made masks optional a couple weeks ago, fourth grader Pinelope Lorenzi made a deal with her mom, who was very nervous about the idea of going mask-free: Pinelope would wear a mask for a week. After that, it was up to her.

Last Tuesday she made the leap and took her face mask off in class.

"On the first day I took off my mask I was a bit nervous and then happy," she said. "It was very new taking off my mask."

She took it slow at first and wore her mask in the mornings. Pinelope explained the decision was more complicated than she expected because a lot of kids in her class are still masking to ward off COVID-19. It also just felt weird showing her full face after covering it up in class for more than a year.

So far, Pinelope likes a few things about going without a mask. First, she’s an English learner. It’s easier for her friends to understand her when they can see her lips and hear her more clearly. She also likes how much easier it is to breathe when she climbs the stairs.

Eighth grader Nathan Dickinson from Holliston agreed. Playing basketball without a mask has been a game changer.

"It’s a lot easier to breathe without a mask on," he said. "It’s, I’d say, like five times easier."

Still, the new policy has been an adjustment.

"It’s been really weird at times," Dickinson said. "Because I haven’t been to school without a mask on for two years now."

Dickinson estimated that about half of his classmates are still wearing masks to school. He said some of them are concerned about getting COVID-19 or giving it to a family member. But it’s not just virus exposure that they’re worried about.

"Some people are saying, 'I don’t want to show my face,' " he said. "That’s what I’ve heard from, I’d say, 90% of people wearing masks at my school."

Over in Hopkinton, school leaders said the transition back to mask-optional policies after a trial run this fall has been pretty smooth.

"I’d say, in the first few days of this, I saw a lot more masks on students and staff," said Hopkinton High School Principal Evan Bishop. "And you’re starting to see fewer and fewer masks as the days go on."

Just before the mask-optional policy took effect in Hopkinton in late February, Bishop sent families an email reminding everyone that school should be a place where students and staff respect each other, regardless of the choices they make about masking.

"The different viewpoints on whether we should be wearing masks or not ... there’s tensions that existed," said Bishop. "Its important that we build this environment here of respect and acceptance and empathy for one another in our interactions."

From classrooms to offices, establishing an environment of empathy and acceptance is a challenge in all kinds of settings right now as masks increasingly become a matter of personal choice. But, Bishop said, the students are handling it well.

Siya Tandon, a third grader in Quincy, agreed. She’s been relieved to see that most of her classmates have been respectful of each other’s decisions.

"To this day I’ve only seen one person, not even in my class, ask someone why they’re wearing a mask," she said.

School feels pretty normal to Siya this year and the mask policy update didn’t change that for her.

This segment aired on March 18, 2022.

Related:

Carrie Jung Twitter Senior Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.

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