Goodbye, Masks; Hello, Freedom!

Students at the top of the Forum on March 14, the first day without the mask mandate. Photo by Reid Alexander.

Since GDS removed its indoor mask mandate on March 14, students, faculty members and visitors are no longer required to wear masks indoors. According to an email from Head of School Russell Shaw on March 9, the school’s decision was based on recent updates in guidance from the CDC and D.C. Department of Health. Not everyone feels content or comfortable with the decision, but GDS made the right call by going mask-optional. 

Since the mandate was lifted, the dynamic of the high school has changed. As a freshman, I am seeing certain peers and teachers’ faces for the very first time, and it feels refreshing to be able to distinguish different emotions from facial expressions. Masked and unmasked students are socializing with and learning alongside each other, and despite the new divide over whether to mask, GDS’ sense of community is still present, if not more so. 

In the past month, cases in the District have fallen and GDS’ infection rate has dropped to below one percent. Almost all eligible community members are fully vaccinated, and with an increasing number of people having received boosters, it makes sense that masks are no longer required. Many of GDS’ peer schools are in the process of lifting their mask mandates; DCPS is no longer requiring masks effective March 16. 

“The announcement came in due time,” senior Max Grosman said in an interview the day of Shaw’s email. “It’ll be really nice to return to a sense of normalcy that we had before the pandemic.” Grosman believes that the change will be positive and he looks forward to finally seeing people’s faces. 

Masks have hindered the way people interact with each other, often at the expense of students learning effectively. I frequently have trouble understanding what my masked teachers and peers are saying. In classes like Spanish, where it is important to read each other’s lips in order to learn pronunciation, my teacher often has had to take off her mask to show us how to say certain words. 

Masks have also been challenging socially—it has become increasingly difficult for me to decipher people’s emotions and personal connections are lost. 

“Masks have undoubtedly affected how I connect with my teachers and my classmates,” freshman Jhet Bond said. “I feel pretty excited about the decision and look forward to this new chapter.” 

Shaw said in his email he anticipates that many will continue to wear masks, and many have, which they have every right to do. COVID-19 poses a higher threat to some community members than others and it should be everyone’s utmost priority to respect and embrace each other’s decisions. Studies have found that one-way masking is highly effective, especially for fully vaccinated and boosted individuals. 

Since the pandemic’s beginning, masks have been a topic of debate in the American political sphere, but masks aren’t as politicized as they once were, and as of late, the removal of mandates has received bipartisan support across the country. Students no longer need to feel worried about any political implications of their decision and should instead embrace personal choice. 

In the past, I have often felt reluctant to take off my mask in public because of assumptions others might make on my political beliefs. For example, last summer, when masks were no longer mandated in most places for vaccinated people, I never wanted to take mine off despite my peers doing so. Nowadays, I don’t feel that same judgment and instead feel relieved that the stigma has finally dissipated. 

“Everybody is vaccinated and we all get tested biweekly,” freshman Audrey Leff said, “so I feel totally safe.” 

Leaving masks behind doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the pandemic—the normalcy that we’ve been longing for may not return until the far future. But in the meantime, we can look forward to the countless benefits that come with being mask-optional and continue to thrive as a community of respect and acceptance.