Westminster’s new mask-optional policy sparks mixed reactions


Reusable masks hung to dry

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our day-to-day lives in a number of ways. To name a few, the virus has taken almost 800,000 American lives, destroyed businesses, fueled nationwide labor shortages, and shut down schools. Amid these devastating consequences of the pandemic, it can be easy to overlook one of the smallest changes we have had to make to our old “normal” lives: wearing a mask.

Wearing masks has been a minor inconvenience for the past year and a half. Masks can be itchy, uncomfortable, and, perhaps worst of all, cover half of everyone’s faces and make them harder to recognize. However, since not wearing a mask poses significant public health risks that, for most, outweigh the inconveniences of wearing one, they became a necessary part of life. 

The COVID-19 vaccine changed that somewhat. Since vaccinated individuals are less likely to have life-threatening reactions to the virus, wearing masks is not as necessary for them as it once was. Many schools, businesses, and establishments across the country have now made masks optional for vaccinated individuals, while unvaccinated individuals must continue to wear them. The City of Atlanta’s mask mandate was lifted on Nov. 9, and Westminster followed suit. The school has recently introduced this same policy (wearing a mask if not vaccinated but mask-optional otherwise) to the Upper School after discussions among faculty and the COVID support team. Westminster students have had mixed opinions on this policy.

“The mask-optional policy is alluring because everyone is tired of wearing them,” said sophomore Jaimie Koh, “but I think it is still too early for wearing masks to be optional.”

Like many other students on campus, Koh said that she continues to wear a mask at school because she does not want to risk catching the virus, even though she is fully vaccinated.

On the other hand, many students appreciate that the policy has been introduced.

“It’s really nice to see everyone’s faces again,” said sophomore Srija Kasturi. “As long as unvaccinated people are still wearing masks, and we’re all doing safe practices, I like that we have the option to not wear a mask.”

Many Westminster teachers also appreciate that they can now see their students’ faces without the masks since, last year, it was hard to recognize their students without seeing their entire faces.

Although only about 59 percent of people in the US have been fully vaccinated, upwards of 95 percent of the Westminster Upper School community have received both doses. Westminster is also offering COVID vaccinations to younger students because, in late October, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 5- to 11-year-old children. Jim Justice, a member of the Westminster COVID support team, said that about 175 of the 5- to 11-year-olds at Westminster have already been vaccinated at school. If the percentage of vaccinated children in the Lower School becomes high enough, Justice said that the COVID support team would consider moving to a mask-optional policy there, too.

“As a school, it is vital that we continue to take necessary precautions against the virus, even if we’re fully vaccinated,” said Justice. “This means continuing to COVID test weekly, wash and sanitize hands, etc.”

Justice also said that Westminster is fully prepared to require masks again if the need arises.

“The circumstances in this pandemic are continuously changing,” said Justice, “and we will change our policies accordingly. But we will always keep learning, growing, and adapting to whatever changes may come.”

Westminster’s mask-optional policy seems to be working well thus far, and it may be just the step toward pre-pandemic normalcy that many in the community crave.