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White KN95-type facemasks against a blue background

“ It must have been a burden for [our principal] to try to understand and protect his students, his staff, and their loved ones during a pandemic,” writes Marylene Bioh.

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Our principal got caught up in the debate over masking. Now, I sympathize with him.

Even after the mandate was lifted, I kept my face covered at school. Here’s why.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

After learning online in eighth grade, I chose blended learning for my freshman year at Beacon High School. I only had to go in person one day a week, and during the rest of the week, my classes were held remotely. I soon learned it didn’t really make sense to go once a week since other students were learning remotely, and teachers came in just to sit in a classroom and teach on Zoom. Still, I kept on with the hybrid schedule.

I finally went back to school full-time at the beginning of my sophomore year in September 2021. My principal stood at the entrance each morning to welcome us, and he seemed happy to be there.

Headshot of a teenage girl in a gray t-shirt and a green and yellow scarf around her head.

Marylene Bioh

Courtesy photo

I had to fight the urge to pull down my mask when socializing; at times, I felt masking made it hard to connect with others. I thought I wasn’t making friends quickly enough in high school and wondered if masks contributed to that.

Eventually, I met more people during extracurricular activities. I joined the Step Club, Black Student Union, and Guitar Lessons Club. I tried out for the basketball team. But it was sometimes annoying to be masked during these activities when I wanted to express emotions or even just breathe after a hard workout. 

I made a few friends during lunch. That was the only time during the day that felt like normal school since we could pull down our masks to eat. 

Then, more than halfway through my sophomore year, in March 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams lifted the mask mandate in all public schools. I never imagined the day would come. I was happy because masks had felt like such a burden; but I also worried about what this meant for COVID.

At first, it was funny to see some classmates without their masks; I thought to myself, Oh my goodness, is that really you under there?!  

I was even more surprised when controversy engulfed my school shortly after the mayor’s announcement. My principal was criticized for allegedly trying to pressure students to wear masks in class. In an email sent the week the mask mandate was lifted, he wrote: “And while teachers cannot mandate a mask in their classroom, they may request that students wear one as many of us have vulnerable ones at home.” This incident was covered in the New York Post

At first, it was funny to see some classmates without their masks; I thought to myself, Oh my goodness, is that really you under there?!

I saw his point, but it still felt like the choice we had just been given was being taken away. Would we really ignore the adults who strongly suggested that we wear masks? 

I also felt some sorrow that my principal had been attacked in the media. He was hired as a replacement principal in 2021 when we were learning online. It must have been a burden for him to try to understand and protect his students, his staff, and their loved ones during a pandemic. 

After a lot of thought, I decided I still worried that regressions in safety precautions could again lead to increased rates of COVID-19 cases. So even after the mandate, I still wore my mask when taking the subway to school and class. I estimate that a good 50% or more of students still wore their masks in school.

There was only one time when a teacher brought up masking, when my math teacher informed us of a new COVID variant peaking in New York, particularly in Manhattan, where my school is. He stated that he wasn’t forcing us to wear masks but suggested that we consider that choice, which I felt was a respectful way of approaching us. 

The criticism of my principal died down, and I see that much of the school community respects him. I realized my biggest fear was that I’d have to relive the nightmare of that day in March 2020, when schools first shut down. Back then, I didn’t know if I’d ever be back in school again. I would hate to go through that horrible phase of the pandemic again; that’s why I keep my mask on.

A version of this essay was originally published by Youth Communication.

Marylene Bioh is 15 years old and attends Beacon High School in Manhattan. Her interests include playing piano and drums, creating beats, and writing song lyrics. She also enjoys playing volleyball and basketball.