While it’s fair to say that masks are a pretty polarizing topic, even among Lovett students and teachers, we should all be able to agree on the correct way to actually wear a mask---but as it turns out, even that isn’t something we can all agree on. Mask wearing at Lovett is like Baskin Robbins’s signature 31 ice cream flavors. For every student, there seems to be a different way to wear the mask.
The most popular ice cream flavor at Lovett seems to be “the exposed nose.” If you aren’t familiar with it, you’ll recognize it the next time you see it. It’s the one where the mask doesn’t actually cover the face. The one that doesn’t actually protect you against the virus. The one that doesn’t protect others from what’s coming out of YOUR nose.
In the Return to the Riverbank Plan, Lovett’s mask policy states: “Given the increased prevalence of the virus, breakthrough spread, the Georgia Department of Public Health’s parameters regarding required quarantine for unmasked exposures, and a city mask mandate, we have concluded that all Lovett students K-12, faculty and staff, and campus visitors will now be required to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status as we begin the school year.”
So. If this is the policy being enforced by Lovett administration and faculty, is showing your nose an act of defiance, laziness, or political commentary?
In a survey the OnLion conducted a few weeks ago, I asked students about their mask habits.
I first asked students if they believe we are actually in the middle of a global pandemic. Out of the 111 students who took the survey, 15% of Lovett students do not believe we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. When I spoke to junior Kamryn Washington, she said she didn’t understand how some people would think we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, considering all of the global deaths recorded. So the results of the schoolwide survey were pretty concerning to her. And me. Still, the majority of survey takers believe the pandemic is real.
Student perspectives on Lovett’s mask policy were more divided. 65% of students agree that Lovett’s mask policy is sensible, while the other 35% disagreed. The anti-mask student I interviewed was likely part of the 35%. They believed that masks “should be required in the Lower School, but not in the Upper School because people are vaccinated.” Kamryn thought Lovett’s policy was sensible. “Especially because of the new variant,” she said. According to the CDC, “The Delta variant is more infectious and spreads faster than early forms of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19...The Delta variant is highly contagious, more than 2x as contagious as previous variants.”
As for the purpose of actually wearing a mask, results were pretty open-ended and varied in the survey. Most people said they wore a mask to protect themselves and others from contracting COVID-19. Some thought it was unlikely that they would actually contract the virus, and 11 respondents were convinced that wearing a mask doesn’t actually have a purpose. One student said, “There are no reputable studies to show masks have a great impact and they definitely have a negative impact on our social lives. It makes it harder to communicate with teachers and with your friends.”
While it may indeed be more difficult for some people to hear what others are saying behind their masks, there are actually numerous studies proving the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of the virus. The CDC released three studies, on September 24, 2021, in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), highlighting “the importance of using layered prevention strategies including universal masking to stop the spread and minimize disruptions to school operations for safe in-person education. These studies found that school districts without a universal masking policy in place were more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks. Nationwide, counties without masking requirements saw the number of pediatric COVID-19 cases increase nearly twice as quickly during this same period.”
Another student was skeptical based on what he feels has been inconsistent faculty enforcement of the policy. “Fabric masks are not the most helpful thing in the first place,” they said. “Also, given the amount of faculty who don't enforce these rules or don't wear them themselves goes to show you how little importance masks are. They are present merely to prevent Lovett from getting in the news again if we have an outbreak.”
I thought this response was interesting, so I decided to ask Mr. Turner, an Upper School History teacher, about his take on the purpose of masks. “Well, as I understand the science, masks can mitigate the spread of disease,” he said. “And it’s not by itself the only thing, but it is an effective tool.”
It’s no secret that as a whole, Lovett students aren’t very disciplined about wearing masks - correctly or even at all. So, other than while eating or drinking, what is the most likely reason a student’s nose would be showing above their mask indoors at school? According to the survey, 70% of students said their masks came down, and they just didn’t notice. 5% said they were frustrated about wearing masks, and that showing their nose was a way of protesting. One student said, “I am not a very ethical person by modern standards to begin with, it is simply my nature. It is not political, but as a narcissist, I cannot find it within me to care.” Someone else said: “It's not political; we just get tired of wearing masks because it is more difficult to breathe and speak.”
When I asked Kamryn why she thought most students would be showing their noses, she said, “Either people are trying to look cool, or they think it’s uncomfortable.” This answer was relatively similar when I asked the anti-mask student. The student said, “It’s hot. It’s really hot under the mask.” Which may speak to the uncomfortable feeling that Kamryn mentioned.
I’m sure all Lovett students have heard teachers say “Pull your mask up!” one time or another this school year, whether to them or another student on campus. Most students are tired of hearing this, which means that teachers are likely tired of saying it. I asked Mr. Turner to share his perspective on this. “We have a school policy,” he said.“So to a degree, I’m just trying to follow school policy...I didn’t make the policy, and I didn’t make COVID-19...but part of my job is to do what I can to encourage students to consistently mask properly.”
He said it’s hard to repeatedly ask students to pull their masks up, and that it’s frustrating. But he really just wants to encourage students to be conscious of their peers and their own health and safety. While 55% of the respondents said teachers never remind them to wear the mask correctly, because they already are, one out of every four students says they often get reminded. 6% of students said they never get reminded, even though their mask is below the nose.
And if mask use is inconsistent at school, what are students doing when they don’t have to follow (or shirk) a mask policy? For 33% of students, Lovett’s masking policy is very different from what they practice outside of school. They represent the percentage of students who almost never wear a mask in public (like at the grocery store or with a friend). The anti-mask student I interviewed told me they don’t wear one “unless it’s required.” Kamryn, on the other hand, said she almost always wears one around other people. “My parents are really strict about it,” she said, “so even when I’m at my friend's house they're always like ‘Wear your mask!’”
I can relate. It’s not easy being in social situations while wearing a mask, especially because it’s not exactly the cool thing to do. For me, sometimes it means being the only one who’s wearing a mask, but I feel a personal obligation to protect myself and others. That is what I have learned in my household, through research, and from some of the morals I hold. My learned behaviors more often than not bleed into public spaces, and this is the same for everyone. For those who don’t practice mask-wearing outside of school, Lovett’s indoor masking requirement may seem like a foreign concept, and is, therefore, more difficult to follow (and vice versa for those who do practice mask-wearing outside of school).
No matter their perspectives on the mask policy, all hope that the time will come soon when we don’t have to wear them. But there are different thoughts on when this might happen. One person on the survey said Lovett might stop requiring masks “when the Lovett community takes this virus seriously, and when the Delta and Mu variant subsides.” Others said maybe in spring or early next school year. But the general consensus seems to be uncertainty over when the mandate will be lifted. Even Mr. Turner had no idea when the mask mandate would be lifted.
After reviewing student responses from the survey, I decided to get some input from Upper School Head Mr. Boswell. I met him in his office, and after sitting down for a few minutes waiting for him, he came rushing into the room, coffee in one hand. He settled in a chair directly across from me, took a deep breath, and gave me the okay to begin a voice recording.
I started off by showing him the pie chart of the first question in the survey sent out to students, which showed the percentage of students who don’t believe we are in the middle of a global pandemic. He told me that maybe 15% felt the pandemic differently than the other 85%. Adding that maybe it’s because some of the hardest effects of the pandemic haven’t hit as locally as they have in other places around the country and world. This does make sense, and I, personally, think it speaks to where the school community is at as a whole. We have all reacted differently from each other due to the pandemic. For example, Mr. Boswell said that for some people, “life feels pre-pandemic,” almost as if the world has entered post-COVID-19 life.
For Mr. Boswell, Lovett’s number one goal is to stay in school. I know just about everyone has very strong opinions about virtual school. Some people thrived during online classes, and others, like me, had a difficult time learning via a google meet. Seeing that the Lovett community has not reached herd immunity, and a segment of our school population hasn’t been approved to get vaccinated, Mr. Boswell believes that masking is a reasonable policy for the Upper School. To add, he doesn’t want individuals to have to quarantine: “The more we’re masking, the less we have to quarantine,” he told me. And this statement is true. In a human study conducted by the CDC, masks were proven to reduce secondary transmissions of COVID-19 by 79%.
In our conversation, we discussed how individual goals affect outcomes. America’s national, state, and local goals are all different, and vary drastically based on factors such as race, socio-economic status, access to healthcare, and political beliefs (just to name a few). This makes it difficult to gather a general consensus or to make decisions on mask mandates - and it’s hard to meet everyone's goals. Mr. Boswell even said that “organizations like Lovett to the federal government haven’t done a good job of effectively communicating the goals outlined by the institution.”
Regardless of the rules in place, Mr. Boswell does have an understanding of why students wear their masks below the nose. The key thing he pointed out was comfort. He said it himself that even he experiences discomfort with masks. For other students, he said wearing the mask below the nose was “a way of pushing back,” because no matter what the rule is, “high school-age students are going to push back...it’s just a time old tale.” We both laughed at this.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked Mr. Boswell what were some things working well with the mask requirement, and things that aren’t working with the mask requirement. He said that measured against other schools that have had to quarantine large groups of students, Lovett’s indoor mask policy has been successful. But when considering some of the policy’s shortcomings, Mr. Boswell wondered what the answer would be if he asked students, “What is the goal of Lovett’s mask policy?” He didn’t know if the majority of the students would actually be able to say that the goal is, “to stay in school.” With this in mind, he said that Lovett can do a better job of communicating the effectiveness of masks within the school community.
When asked about teacher mask enforcement, Mr. Boswell told me that he understands the frustration that faculty go through on a daily basis, while asking students to wear the mask correctly. For some faculty, it’s hard knowing that your only interaction with a student in the hallway or classroom is just to tell them to pull their mask up. And with this, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain patient and kind to other students in the classroom or hallways. For other faculty, it becomes too much to constantly remind students, and they “just can’t.”
At this point, we all have one question in mind: when will the mask policy be lifted? And Mr. Boswell truly did not know when. But he did say three factors the school is looking at. The first one is the “vaccination rate among Upper School and Lower School students.” The second is, “what does the community spread look like?” And the third is, “what effect does vaccines becoming available for ages under 12 have on our school.” But he imagines that that process will be even slower than it was for 12 and over.
Lastly, I wanted to know what it’s like to be principal during a global pandemic. After thinking for a little while about what to say, Mr. Boswell first made it clear that he loves his position as principal. But the pandemic has definitely increased the emotions surrounding his job. Not only does he deal with the emotions of a pre-pandemic school year, but now he deals with more anxiety and uncertainty from the entire school community. He added that for faculty, “sometimes it's hard to give to others...even in a profession where you have to give to others.” But even in this stress, he realizes that it’s important to take time for himself and his family, and likewise for faculty, so that giving to others isn’t such a difficult task. I think this is something we should all do, faculty and students alike.
So back to the question, Is showing your nose an act of defiance, laziness, or political commentary? After hearing from students, a teacher, and an administrator, the answer seems more complicated than one or the other. For some, the answer is because of comfort. For others, showing their nose is a way to display frustration with the policy. In more complicated ways, it is a reflection of our personal belief system - who and what we believe in. In the end, it seems to be a question of to what degree Lovett students can be mindful of those around them. Yes, it’s difficult to socialize and learn with a mask on. But you know what I think is better? Actually being in school with my teachers and classmates around me. But...that’s just my take.