David Fleishman, the principal of schools in Newton, Massachusetts, an affluent Boston suburb, said he recently received a message from a parent urging the end of mask mandates in classrooms.
But first, he said, the person felt the need to assure him, “I’m not a Trump supporter.”
While Newton, like much of Massachusetts, is predominantly liberal and democratic, Mr. Fleishman said that when it comes to masks, “there is tension.”
The struggle for mask mandates may move into liberal-oriented communities that largely agreed on the need for masking — and were bound by statewide mask requirements.
With Massachusetts lifting its mandate for school masks on Feb. 28 and joining other liberal states like New Jersey and Connecticut, it’s up to individual school districts like Newton and nearby Boston to decide if and how soon to introduce their own mask rules.
But a well-organized chorus of public health and child development experts, alongside parent activists, say masking can harm children academically and socially, and calls for a return to a semblance of normalcy.
Newton and Boston, about 10 miles from each other, give an idea of how two politically liberal and cautious districts approach choice — and how and why they might arrive at different decisions. The debate will cover science, as well as politics, race and class, as well as a wave of emotions.
Some see masking as a powerful health tool and a symbol of progressive values. Others have come to see face coverings as an unfortunate social barrier between their children and the world. And many people are somewhere in between.
In Newton, 65 percent of primary school students, 79 percent of high school students and 88 percent of high school students are vaccinated, according to the district. The neighborhood is 61 percent white and 14 percent of students are eligible for a free lunch or lunch at a discounted rate.
Some prominent community leaders say they are ready to ease restrictions.
In Boston, where vaccination rates are slightly lower — significantly for black and Hispanic children, who make up most of the district — the public school district says it has no plans to end its mask mandate.
Some of the city’s charter schools don’t either.
David Steefel-Moore, director of operations for the MATCH charter network, said he had heard “no negative backlash” about masking parents, who are predominantly black and Latino. “We have the other side of that: ‘My kid told me there’s a kid in their class with the mask around their neck. What do you do about that?’”
For Boston students who may be living with a grandparent or relative with underlying health conditions, the end of mandatory masking could put children and teens in the awkward position of having to choose between feeling safe from their family and attending school, it said. he. Gayl Crump Swaby, a Boston Public Schools parent and professor of counseling specializing in trauma issues for families of color.
“They shouldn’t be making these kinds of decisions; they are young,” she said.
Some parents may even prefer online education over classrooms with exposed peers and teachers, she added.
In Newton, one of the most prominent voices in the masking debate is Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and a parent of students in the district. He is a member of the district’s medical advisory group and has become an outspoken advocate for exposing children if Omicron pulls out.
The group is meeting this month to formulate a recommendation on masking for the elected school committee, which will make the final decision.
dr. Jha does not believe his own children were seriously injured by masks and does not believe the pandemic is over.
But he wants to expose quickly, he says, in part to provide some social and academic normalcy, as he thinks future outbreaks of the coronavirus in the United States will likely need to be masked again — possibly in the south in summer and in the north this time. fall and next winter.
He argued that with new therapies to treat Covid-19, there is little benefit to masking this spring in regions, such as the Boston area, with relatively high vaccination rates and sharply declining infections.
“If not now, when?” he asked. “Because I don’t foresee a time in the coming years that will necessarily be that much better.”
Vulnerable teachers and students, he said, can stay safe by wearing high-quality masks, even when those around them are uncovered. He pointed out that during the pandemic, virus transmission within schools has been limited, including in some places where masks were not required.
However, Dr. Jha’s advice isn’t necessarily reassuring for educators who have seen guidelines change over the past two years.
The coronavirus pandemic: important things to know
Virus safety plans have been carefully negotiated in many left-wing regions between teacher unions and districts, and they can be difficult to roll back.
“The knowledge of the virus changes, the variants change, the facts change, which is really frustrating,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union.
Teacher unions have been among the strongest proponents of masking, urging in recent weeks that their members and students have access to medical-grade masks and respirators such as N95s, KN95s, KF94s and surgical masks. But individual teachers disagree about how important masks are and how they affect students.
In Newton, Suzanne Szwarcewicz, an English teacher at an elementary school, said masks posed a challenge for young children who were native speakers of languages such as Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hebrew and Spanish.
Last school year, Ms. Szwarcewicz experimented with teaching English using a mask with a clear plastic front so students could see the shapes her lips and tongue made as she spoke. But she gave up on that when those masks quickly became damp and uncomfortable. She now uses videos to demonstrate correct pronunciation, and sometimes lowers her own mask briefly while standing a few feet away from the students.
Ms. Szwarcewicz said she would feel comfortable having students take off their masks, and would feel safe knowing that her own mask provides protection. Still, she would be happy to support colleagues if her union voted to protest a relaxation of masking rules, she said.
Newton Teachers Association president Mike Zilles said there could indeed be resistance if the school committee chooses to voluntarily make masks. The state and district have recently relaxed virus testing at school, contact tracing and quarantine procedures, leaving masks an important remaining defense, he argued.
Feelings of pandemic burnout are common among teachers.
“We were thrown in, asked to risk our lives, and nobody really acknowledged that,” Mr Zilles said. “We were the guinea pig.”
dr. Jha did acknowledge that academic studies were unlikely to influence those who feared unmasked students, but said he expected the consensus to grow over time as students in neighboring districts shook off their face coverings without outbreaks.
“People need to get to a point emotionally and mentally where they’re comfortable with this,” he said. “If the kids are all masked for the next two years, that’s a problem. I’ll push back pretty hard. But if they’re masked for the next two months, that’s fine.”