It’s been a week since local high school campuses have been mask-optional, and a sizable majority of students are still choosing to wear masks. Here’s how students at Mountain View, Los Altos and Palo Alto high schools are feeling.
Mountain View junior Sophia Ismael said the number of unmasked peers in her classes varies widely; in some classes, she was one of only one or two, while in others, nearly half of the class was unmasked.
“I have a rule where I only take off my mask if the teacher is taking off their mask because the only reason I wear a mask is to make other people feel comfortable,” Ismael said.
Ismael said she’s seen judgment toward both sides, but primarily toward those who choose not to wear masks.
“On the first day, I saw this one kid; he had his mask off and I think he was the only kid [not wearing a mask] in that class,” she said. “[But] then the next class, he had his mask on.”
Both Ismael and sophomore Radhika Kamran said they observed an increase in the number of individuals unmasking throughout the week, though Kamran said she hasn’t seen peer pressure either way.
“I have one teacher who has reserved spots in the front for masked students, and then if you’re unmasked, you have to sit in the back, because he’s immunocompromised,” Kamran said.
Kamran added that in most of her classes, less than a fourth of students were unmasked, though she said she’s heard differing breakdowns for other classes.
History teacher Dr. Latina Wharton said that in her classes, most students have continued wearing masks throughout the week.
While Wharton said the main reason is because students are still concerned about getting sick, she noted that comfort also likely plays a role.
“I think even the ones that are wearing masks … appreciate just the fact that now they can have a little snack in class without stepping outside or having a drink of water,” she said.
Wharton chooses not to wear a mask during class, but said that if any student wants her to, she has no problem putting one on.
“Although I feel comfortable with [the mandate lift], I’m still fearful of getting sick … so I’m happy that the students are wearing their masks,” said Wharton, who herself isn’t wearing a mask.
Returning to the Palo Alto High campus on Tuesday morning, junior Wendy Li decided to wait further before potentially unmasking.
“I’m debating on either taking it off after spring break or just waiting until next year because I’d rather be safe than sorry,” Li said.
Li cited how past ebbs and flows of the pandemic and mandates have played out.
“I’m kind of nervous because every time we think that things are slowing down or they’re getting better, a huge spike or a spike in general occurs,” Li said. “Christmas break happened and there was Omicron and then we had to go back with more serious restrictions. So I’m a little bit worried that as a result of this, … there will be another spike in coronavirus.”
Throughout the week, Li noticed an average of one or two students who decided to unmask in class. Junior Nadim Mourad is one of these students.
“I don’t like my mask,” Mourad said. “I had to consider how it would make other people feel, but I realized people aren’t going to be that uncomfortable sitting next to me if I’m not wearing my mask … it’s just a personal choice.”
Los Altos senior Monica Reyes Lopez said she wore her mask this week mostly out of habit, but that that could change soon.
“Maybe next week is when I’ll start to let go, but what kind of holds me back a little bit is the judgment of others,” Lopez said. “I feel like through the pandemic there’s been a lot of harsh judgment.”
She said she hasn’t seen anybody voice that judgment, but she suspects it’s there — it’s just that nobody wants to “you know, start a whole thing.”
Lopez pointed to the coronavirus shifting toward a more endemic form in saying that she would feel comfortable taking her mask off now.
“The county believes [unmasking indoors] is safe enough for us, so I’m going to take that,” Lopez said.
She estimated that 90% of students in her classes are still wearing masks, and said that even if she does unmask next week, she’ll keep testing regularly.
Freshman Sophia Lee doesn’t feel as comfortable as Lopez.
“Honestly, it’s not required so people can [unmask] if they want to, and I don’t really judge them too hard for it,” Lee said. “But mainly for me, because COVID is so prevalent and there’s still new ongoing variants too, I just don’t feel safe.”
She also noted that she can’t wear a mask during swim meets, where she’s exposed to a lot of people, so prefers to wear one in school “just to feel safer about myself.”
Lee estimated that one to three people in each of her classes didn’t wear masks this week, and expects to continue wearing her mask through the end of the school year.
Suzanne Woolfolk, one of the school’s assistant principals, opted to keep her mask on this week.
But she also said she could see a world in which by May, if unmasking is the norm among students and there’s no longer a “strong recommendation” to mask from the county, she’d take her mask off.
“As an administrator, I like to be an example, especially indoors of being OK wearing it,” Woolfolk said. “I just want everyone to feel comfortable and not get negative feedback about what they chose.”
She noted that masks are still strongly recommended by the county, a recommendation which she’s decided to adhere to.
As a side note, Woolfolk said that at the spring dance last week — which was the first large mask-optional gathering (though outdoors) since March 2020 — school administrators found a handful of overwhelmed students, some even in tears.
“When asked what’s wrong a couple were like, ‘I don’t know this is just overwhelming,’” she said. “But if we reflect on it, it was the first time a lot of them have been in a group that large … without masks.”
She said that most teachers seem to be wearing masks still, and that only about four or five students in large classes aren’t wearing masks; she wondered aloud whether table arrangements — clustered groups as opposed to spaced-out rows — made any difference.