Family

Why I’m Encouraging My Daughter Not To Wear A Mask To School

Photo: Halfpoint / Shutterstock
student wearing face mask

When I read my daughter the news that the school mask mandate will soon end, I expect a big response, along the lines of dancing in the streets or a mask burning.

She was nine years old and in the fourth grade when New York City public schools shut down two years ago. There were countless milestones she would miss; we recognized but did not dwell on them. She understood that in the face of a global pandemic, there’s not much room to cry over missing the Halloween fair or fifth-grade play.

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You get what you get and you don’t get upset was the adage we used most often in those days.

We were amongst the fortunate families who were able to escape the city, living in our country house. We had enough space to house me and my ex-husband and our three kids. That we could not get Wifi was a source of constant tension as we fought over the hotspot granting us access to the outside world, but we made do.

There was never a question that when schools re-opened, my daughter would be in attendance. The school day was shortened and the class size was half of what it had been, making the experience feel more like pre-K than fifth grade. She attended once a week, then twice, working her way up to a full week by spring.

The students ate lunch alone at their desks, and no talking was allowed. Still, amidst the daily changes and school closings, we remained grateful that she had something of a routine and a reason to get dressed, and that she could see the live — albeit masked — faces of her friends and teachers. Having something was better than having nothing at all.

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In the fall of 2021, she started middle school. The school she attends is the neighborhood zoned school, bringing together students from numerous elementary schools. The principal is sensitive to the current plight facing students, noting early in the year that kids seem not to know how to behave in school anymore.

There has always been fighting and bullying in middle school, but this was more than the usual fare.

The school was recently in the NYPost and on various news channels over the rampant fighting. Is it because kids misunderstand each other without facial cues, or that they’ve lost a critical two years of development that would have helped them transition from elementary school to middle school? Frankly, I’m amazed the problem isn’t worse.

Our first parent-teacher conference in November was on Zoom. My daughter was excited, which was suspect.

“I’ve never seen her face before,” she said. “If she’s not wearing a mask on Zoom, I’ll be able to see what she really looks like.”

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I thought about how intimidated by this teacher she was and realized, she has not had facial expressions to go by, only words, which perhaps came out more harshly than the teacher intended. My daughter imagined the expression that accompanied these words as perpetually stern.

When I tell her the news about the mask mandate ending, she is nonplussed. It feels too sudden, she’s not sure she is ready. I tell her that she should do whatever is comfortable for her, but that it might be nice to see faces again.

After school, she announces that she will not be taking off her mask anytime soon, as most of her friends plan to keep theirs on. I talk to her about falling Covid rates and vaccinations, reminding her that the risk to her is low. I tell her it might feel strange at first but that within a few days, she will barely remember wearing one at all.

“No,” she says. “It’s not that. We all think we look better with our masks on.”

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She recounts a discussion they had in school that when you cannot see a person’s whole face, you automatically fill in the missing parts with the best version you can imagine. Thus, any time a friend or teacher’s mask goes down even for a moment, she is surprised and disappointed to see what the person really looks like.

She assumes the same is true of how others react to her. She does not want her new friends or teachers to think she is ugly when they see her face, so better the mask stays on.

We’ve done our best as a family to follow the guidelines these past two years while also trying to carry on some semblance of normalcy. It always amazed me how well kids adapted to wearing masks, with little complaint — better than most adults I knew. 

I see now that what at first felt uncomfortable became a shield, another layer to place between themselves and the outside world. The social distance from each other, the silent school lunches, and the inability to share pencils or freely travel the school hallways have forced our children to retreat into themselves so that even smiling at another person can feel like a political statement.

I hadn’t determined how maskless I would go once the rules changed, but now I know: I will take it off wherever it is allowed, modeling for my daughter that hearing unmuffled voices, seeing faces smile or grimace or a person unknowingly bite their lip when they’re unsure, is a necessary form of communication and connection point for humanity.

It’s going to take courage for her to reveal her face to the world again, that face that I see as the pinnacle of perfection that she has convinced herself looks better undercover, but it’s time.

RELATED: Dad Claims Non-Masked Kids In School Are Coughing On His Daughter — Mask Bullying May Be A New Threat

Laura Friedman Williams is the author of Available: A Very Honest Account of Life After Divorce.  She writes a blog on Medium about parenting and relationships and is a frequent podcast guest on the subject of reinvention, particularly in midlife.  

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.