With mask mandate lifted, students face tough decision

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Jackson Hassler

A bin of now-optional masks sits in the welcome center

On Feb. 27, Superintendent Greg Johnson sent an email to students and staff informing them that masks will now be optional in the building. The decision came after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that Illinois was lifting the school mask mandate, per new CDC guidelines.

While many students continued to wear their masks when the mandate was first lifted, more have begun to take them off.

Ella Homrok, sophomore and varsity water polo player, has chosen not to wear a mask in school since the mandate was lifted. She said she feels comfortable without a mask because she is boosted and got COVID over winter break.

“I trust the CDC,” Homrok says, emphasizing if they said it was unsafe again and the school required it, she would go back to wearing a mask.

To make the decision, the administration “looked at the numbers in terms of what we received from our SHIELD testing but also what was happening in Oak Park and River Forest,” Principal Lynda Parker said.

“I think it’s really good that it’s optional, because it’s not forcing people to do what they’re not comfortable with,” Homrok says.

But for some, including sophomore Mia Kamenski, the decision felt rushed or too soon. “I got the email and I was immediately very angry and upset,” Kamenski says. “I’m just not sure if this was the right time,” she says. “I have a lot of anxiety about COVID.”

Kamenski, who has an immunocompromised younger sibling, says for her, wearing a mask is about protecting her family.

For people like Kamenski with at-risk family members or who are generally more wary about COVID, there are extra precautions they can take, says Parker. “We want students to know they’re still welcome to wear the mask, and if you want to double up, you can do that,” she said.

The school is also offering a socially distanced lunch in a lecture hall, where students can sit six feet apart from each other.

The mask mandate being lifted also effects extracurricular activities. This spring will be the first in two almost years that sports are allowed to play and practice maskless.

Head girls soccer coach and health teacher Christine Johnston says practicing last year with masks “definitely impacted our performance.”

Senior and two-year varsity player Lily Clifford emphasized the struggles of having to wear a mask last season. “It was insanely hot and it made it hard for a lot of us to breathe,” she said.

“It mentally and physically distracted the players as well as the coaches,” Johnston said.

Aside from the physical aspect, the masks also affected the team’s ability to connect. “I think (unmasking) just helps with the personal connections that the girls will make,” Johnston says.

“I really applaud everyone for being very respectful in this whole transition,” Parker says. “My choice does not have to be better or worse than your choice. It’s just a choice,” Parker says.

As of March 18, the lift has not led to a COVID spike, with only one positive case from the week of March 11-17.

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