Faced With No Mandate, Community Split on Whether to Mask

Maskless students gather in the Internet Cafe on March 14. Photos by Reid Alexander.

Arriving at school on the morning of March 14, GDS community members were met with the unfamiliar choice of whether or not to wear a mask. With the school’s indoor mandate lifted, students and teachers took a variety of approaches to the new freedom. 

Many continued to don face coverings—out of apprehension, habit or consideration for others—while others took the chance, at long last, to show their full faces. Some community members periodically switched between the two options, depending on whom they were with, the setting or the time of day. 

Community members found out that GDS would end its indoor mask mandate in an email from Head of School Russell Shaw on March 9. The new policy went into effect two years and one day after GDS closed down indefinitely due to COVID.

Junior Lydia Kabiri told the Bit that she made a quick decision not to wear her mask after coming to school. “I was planning on having my mask on my chin, at least, but I just don’t feel like wearing one,” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t even talk to my parents about it.” 

For some students, returning to pre-pandemic normalcy was the most important factor in the decision not to wear a face covering. “I think it is a bit of a health risk, but it’s worth it,” freshman Tigin Unsal said in an interview with the Bit. “We need to get back to normal.” 

But some students continued to wear their masks throughout the day despite the lifting of the requirement. “I just feel like it’s the safer option,” sophomore Zoe Ferguson said. Others agreed, telling the Bit that they would continue to wear masks for the foreseeable future.

Sophomore Malcolm Baar told the Bit that his mother was concerned about his safety and required him to wear a mask, which he did, though he was indifferent about the choice.

Students in the senior corner of the Forum on the first school day without a mask mandate since 2020.

The dozen students and teachers interviewed by the Bit on March 14 had varying estimates of the percentage of high school community members wearing masks. Six said that the majority of people wore masks. Four suggested that the GDS population was split down the middle. 

Between fifth and seventh period, 54 people in the Forum, mostly seniors, were unmasked, while 28 were wearing face coverings, according to a count by the Bit

Latin teacher Nicola McCutcheon taught her classes unmasked and found that it was easier to connect with students. She estimated that about 60 percent of her students wore masks but pointed out that some of them put them on and took them off at various times during her classes. 

“Twenty percent have no masks whatsoever,” health teacher Caitlin Hutcheon estimated. “About 40 percent have masks on their face or with them but aren’t wearing them. And the rest are still wearing masks.” 

Shaw explained in his March 9 announcement email that GDS was able to lift its mask mandate after the D.C. Department of Health revised its guidance for schools. He cited the low infection numbers in the city and the school community, GDS’ high vaccination rates and the effectiveness of “one-way masking” as reasons for the decision.

“Ours is a community that teaches the importance of respecting others,” Shaw wrote. “We will celebrate all of our community members for whatever choice they make.”

Three students interviewed by the Bit noticed differences between the grades in the number of students who had masks on. Sophomore Robert Koukios, who wore a mask, noted that all of the freshmen in his Spanish class had masks on, while the rest of his classmates did not. 

Students on the junior couches at the top of the Forum on March 14.

Kabiri noticed a similar trend throughout the school, stating that the younger high schoolers tended to wear masks more than the older students. She noted that most seniors did not wear a mask at all. “I think the seniors want to have a sense of normalcy before they leave,” she said. 

Some people mirrored the masking practices of those around them, but for varying reasons. Bobby Asher, the director of student life and wellness, said that he occasionally put his mask on, even though he prefers to not wear it, because he thought it would make students feel more comfortable. “I put the students’ interests in front of my own sometimes,” he said.

Some students did the same for their teachers. Senior Leah Fitzpayne, who wore her mask almost all through the day, told the Bit that if her teacher was wearing a mask, she did the same, because the teacher might have safety concerns due to age and heightened potential for severe COVID symptoms.

Other students said that their peers’ opinions affected their decision to wear a mask throughout the day, and that when they were surrounded by people with stricter practices, they felt compelled to wear one. 

“I do believe that there is a bit of a hive mentality,” Asher said, referring to those whose mask-wearing habits are influenced by others. 

However, some students did not take their peers’ opinions into account. For freshman Richard Evans, who decided not to wear a face covering, the choice was easy: “I don’t like masks.”

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