March 9, 2022

There’s Nothing Simple about the Choice to Unmask (but there is a Bright Side).


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*Editor’s Note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and can not possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.

Exactly two years ago, the world as we knew it changed forever.

Our lives came to a grinding halt when COVID-19 tore through the United States with a vengeance.

Practically every profession was changed in ways that no one could have ever imagined. 

I am a middle school educator. To say the last four semesters have been fraught with anxiety and uncertainty would be a gross understatement. Throughout the pandemic, many recognized that it might be a long time until life went back to the way we knew it, and that it would take even longer for education to return to normal.

Just last week, our governor announced that the mask mandate in public schools throughout New York state would end. The feelings surrounding that decision have been as diverse as the opinions about mask wearing in the first place.

Here is a small collection of words, out of the mouths of teachers, students, and parents, as they responded to the changes:

“I’m so excited to see what people look like.”

“The floodgates opened for me at drop-off. It hit me in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. It was a big deal to see so many faces.”

“It was like no other day! Not even the first day of school with new kids. Although, a few times throughout the day I felt naked, like something was missing.”

“Not all of my kids were excited. I felt their big feelings all over the place.”

“Best. Day. Ever!”

“I heard that some people were so happy that they destroyed their masks. They’d better hope they don’t need them anymore.”

“Note to self: watch your facial expressions.”

“I expected today to just be like any other day. Then, it quickly became apparent that it was anything but normal. I had forgotten how rewarding it was to see their tiny faces smiling at me all day.”

“I’m a little afraid today. I think I’ll keep one [a mask] in my pocket, just in case.”

“I was excited to wear lipstick today. I wore lots of it to celebrate!”

“It is a weird feeling, but after talking it through at home, we decided to forgo the mask today. We still sent one, just in case he needed it for some reason.”

“My mom wants me to still wear a mask because of my grandma, but I don’t wanna.”

“Yay! My ears won’t hurt anymore.”

“It is a little sad that this is actually a day. Yay…don’t get me wrong: primary students going to school without a mask for the very first time in their whole lives is quite a big deal!”

“Yipee! I feel like I’m not even in school.”

“Without masks, I am able to fully gauge my students’ feelings once again. And now, I’ll take each and every one of them, from their enthusiasm and joy to their disappointment and boredom.”

“I feel like I’m forgetting something countless times per day. I wonder if/when that feeling will subside.” 

“All of this time throughout the pandemic, I’ve put effort into trying to forget our pre-COVID life. Today, I was reminded of how much we really need one another. Connection is what matters more than anything.” 

But what happens now? How long will we, as a human race, apply the lessons learned throughout Covid? Lessons about becoming a more appreciative, tolerant, compassionate, grateful society?

Personally, I’d like to think that each strip of cloth covering our nose and mouth has done much more than keep us safe, muffle our voices, and hide our expressions. After enduring the masks for nearly two years, the option to remove them has allowed us all a fresh, raw appreciation for living, for everyday acts like giving and receiving a warm smile.

May we forever recognize the privilege of simply occupying the same six feet of space with another human being, masked or unmasked, inside or outside the walls of a school building. For me, this past week has been like breathing in hope.

And that fresh air feels like a promising new start. 


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