The plight of going mask optional

Teachers are concerned about the lifting of the mask mandate


When Chicago Public Schools (CPS) switched to a mask optional policy beginning March 14, Jones teachers expressed a flurry of emotions, but most notably showed concern for the safety of students and staff going forth. 

On Monday, March 7, due to sharply declining COVID-19 cases, CPS announced that it would join the rest of the state in dropping its mask mandate, despite having reached a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) back in January for universal masking through August. In response, CTU has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against CPS. These events have left many teachers feeling caught off guard. 

“I was not expecting CPS to do this. They kept sending teachers emails saying they would maintain the universal masking policy,” said Nate Tornow, Social Studies Department Chair. 

Cynthia Lilagan, computer science teacher and Computer Science and Engineering Department Co-Chair, echoes that sense of surprise.

“I was completely not expecting this. I wonder why CPS would change masking policies, when it was working so well? So many schools also do not have high vaccination rates, so to get rid of this layer of mitigation just seems so risky and so uncalled for,” said Lilagan. 

Even though teachers, like the rest of CPS, were notified of this policy change on March 7, Caitlin Miller, English Department Chair, believes that it was only a matter of time until CPS went mask optional. 

“I have friends who teach in other districts in the suburbs, and they got word that they were going to be mask optional about three weeks ago,” said Miller. “So I just knew it was a matter of time for us to also fall in line.” 

Whether teachers were expecting this decision or not, there was a general concern for the immunocompromised or other people at risk within the Jones community. 

“I’m mostly worried for students who have younger siblings at home who can’t be vaccinated. I worry for staff members who have little kids, or staff members who have immunocompromised people at home, like me,” said Miller. 

On the other hand, Math teacher Jeewant Kaushal feels more confident going mask optional, especially as COVID-19 cases decrease.

“At this point, I’m comfortable with it because the COVID-19 numbers have become low,” said Kaushal. 

Another Jones teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous, also feels comfortable with lifting the mask mandate. 

“I am comfortable with the decision,” they said. “I think that it matches the CDC guidelines. I also don’t see the need to force the mask mandate if the transmission rate is low, and it is safe to not wear a mask”

Though, concerns extend to Jones culture too, according to Miller.

“My worry is that it’s going to cause disconnects amongst staff and students. It seems like a ploy, in some ways, to politically divide people,” said Miller. 

As the mask optional policy has gone into effect, some Jones teachers have seen possible peer pressure in play.

“I see a lot of students wearing masks either below their noses or their chins, which tells me that they’re feeling a little peer pressure to keep masks around, even if they don’t feel like they need them,” said a teacher. 

Tornow, on the other hand, believes that at Jones there is a better chance masks won’t divide people.

“My impression is that most people in the building have been supportive of mask mandates, so I hope that it won’t become a divisive topic,” said Tornow. “And if it does, I hope that we can come to some sort of agreement to navigate the mask optional policy.”

Despite any possible divisions masking may cause, removing the mask mandate may also provide boosts to the learning experience.

“If I’m having a class discussion whether the students are the main focus of an activity, it is very difficult for students to project through the mask,” a teacher said. “When people have freer communication, I think that learning is heightened.” 

While teachers acknowledge COVID-19 protocol decisions are out of their control, many plan to have a check in with their classes when CPS officially switches to mask optional. 

“Come Monday, I’ll try to have a conversation about concerns overall that we have, and acknowledge that we’re going to have disagreements. But, at least we’ll talk about it and see where we stand as a class, and respect each other’s choices,” said Kaushal. 

Miller also plans on speaking to her classes, but about her own personal masking decision. 

“I plan on speaking to my students about my decision to remain masked. I have to be honest with my students about my own health issues and why I believe in masking, in a non-confrontational way,” Miller said. 

Some teachers also are planning on changing some of their behaviors in lieu of the policy change.

“I’ll probably spend a lot more time behind my desk,” said French teacher Tory Waterman. “If students are not wearing masks, I’m not going to go near them.”

As teachers are figuring out what the mask optional will look like, many continue to stand with CTU and their battle against CPS’ decision. 

“I think that it’s right that CTU filed a grievance [against CPS]. I obviously don’t want to miss more days of school, but if that is what the leadership of the union says we’re going to do, then I’m willing to do so because it’s what’s right,” said Waterman. 

Tornow also feels supportive of the CTU. 

“I am supportive of my union, and I will follow suit with the union. However, I hope that there is not a need on both sides for another labor dispute,” said Tornow. 

Even with the concerns teachers have as Jones transitions into another phase of mask policy, some teachers are looking forward to the day normalcy returns.

“I can’t wait for the masking to end, but I just want to feel safe doing it,” said Tornow.