COVID-19: Two Years Later
By: Jessica Hudnut and Hadi Rahim
On March 13, 2020, COVID-19 had just begun to infect people in North Carolina. The atmosphere at school that day is difficult to describe. Students traveled from class to class excitedly discussing the possibility that school would be canceled the next week. Some wondered if the 2019-2020 school year would continue at all. Still, the school day generally proceeded as normal.
The next day, Governor Roy Cooper announced that all K-12 public schools would be closed for at least two weeks. Many students were thrilled to have an unexpected break from school. Nobody realized yet that, once the school closed its doors, they would not open again for in-person instruction until over a year later.
Today, just over two years have passed since that fateful day in March of 2020. Schools have mostly returned to normal operation, with one glaring difference: masks.
Since schools reopened last April, staff and students have been required to wear cloth face coverings on campus at all times (except when actively eating or drinking). However, as of March 7, 2022, this requirement has been lifted. According to the new guidelines issued by Wake County Public Schools, masks are recommended (but not required) for staff, students, and visitors on campus.
Lindsay Mahaffey, who serves on the Wake County Board of Education for District 8 (which includes Apex High), is wary of future outbreaks but confident that the schools are prepared to handle them:
“WCPSS has provided Merv-13 filters, increased outside air circulation with all HVAC units and had a more rigorous cleaning schedule in schools and on buses… WCPSS can send individual classrooms, grade levels or schools into virtual if needed due to an outbreak and the Board of Education has the authority to require masks again.”
While numbers vary greatly between classes, overall about half of Apex High’s students have continued to wear masks in spite of the mandate ending.
Students decide to wear masks (or not) for a number of reasons. Many students who continue to wear masks do so because they feel more comfortable; after two years, wearing a mask has become second nature. Another popular deciding factor is peer pressure. For students who do not have strong opinions about masks, it feels easier to simply do what their friends are doing.
Ms. Pettifer, a social studies teacher, was initially skeptical of the county’s decision as she suspected that the mandate was only being lifted to appease people who were tired of wearing masks. Although she feels less nervous after seeing that numbers of cases are declining, she still opts to wear a mask in class.
“I don’t want to get sick, and I also don’t want to make any of my kids uncomfortable. I feel like, by not wearing a mask, I make more kids uncomfortable than by just keeping it on.”
She sometimes removes her mask while sitting at her desk or visiting other teachers, but she always keeps it on while interacting with students.
“I’m wearing it…not so much for myself but for other people.”
She also discussed how it would feel to stop wearing a mask now that they have become so normalized:
“I feel like it’s become such a safety blanket, like… I’m not even wearing it necessarily now for the keeping me healthy part; I just feel naked without it on. I genuinely could not tell you-it’s been part of what I wear for two years now. It would feel weird going away. But at the same time I don’t want to wear it forever.”
Another teacher, Mrs. Murphy, offered a similar perspective, suggesting that students who are more “reserved and protective of themselves” may be more inclined to continue wearing masks.
Mrs. Murphy personally chooses not to wear a mask while teaching. She feels much more comfortable going without a mask now that vaccinations are so widely available. Mr. Brown, a CTE teacher, also cited the vaccine as a major factor in his decision not to wear a mask.
“I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, so I feel like that’s helped my decision a lot. If those weren’t a thing I’d probably still be wearing a mask, honestly. But I’m all boostered up and all my shots… that was kind of my decision.”
Over the last two years, the pandemic has changed our culture. Today, it seems strange to see people not wearing masks. As it becomes clear that COVID-19 is here to stay, the world is beginning to return to some semblance of life before the pandemic.
Most students, regardless of whether they continue to wear masks, feel positive about the end of the mandate, and the transition has gone relatively smoothly. As cases continue to decline, we are approaching a new normal. Still, no one can say for sure what a post-pandemic world will look like. Will masks go away forever? Or will they linger, finding a new place in daily life? Only time will tell.