Right Under Our Noses


Merideth Langton

Masks below noses were a common sight at Kennedy before the mask mandate was removed.

Authors’ Note: Regardless of the Jan. 25 removal of Iowa schools’ ability to enforce mask mandates, masks should still be worn indoors to protect oneself and others from COVID-19. Considering the omicron variant’s high infection rate, school mask mandates could not have been struck down at a worse time.

Mask mandate compliance at Kennedy is weathering away. Masks slip below noses, chins and are sometimes taken off completely. Students have grown tired of the school mask mandate, in place since Sept. 15, and choose to rebel against it.

An exemption form makes matters worse. Although the form is intended to be used by those who have genuine difficulties wearing masks, any student, with a signature from a licensed health care provider, can fill out the form and turn it in to the main office, dodging the mandate. Proof of vaccination is not required to get an exemption.

This loophole hasn’t gone unnoticed. In just about every class, you can find a student without their mask. With COVID-19 infection rates at their highest ever worldwide, why are we dropping our standards?

A common misconception follows this line of thinking: Wearing a mask should be optional now. Vaccines are widely available for free, and once someone is vaccinated, they cannot catch COVID-19, so they cannot spread it either. Therefore, the mask is pointless, and they can go about their day as usual.

This theory presents an ideal world, where vaccines are perfect. Unfortunately, we do not live in that ideal world, so a school mask mandate has to make up for some shortcomings. COVID-19 vaccines are effective at reducing the chance of catching the disease. They are even more effective at reducing hospitalizations, but they do not block COVID-19 entirely. Once a vaccinated person is infected, even if they are asymptomatic, they can spread the disease too.

Even if vaccines were perfect, their mass availability hasn’t led to mass adoption. As of Jan. 4, only 59% of Iowans are fully vaccinated. By allowing people to choose whether or not they wear a mask, some unvaccinated people will choose to go mask-free.

Another misunderstanding is that masks should not be required because we are not responsible for protecting people from themselves. In the United States, people are allowed to believe what they wish, to make poor choices, to risk their own lives without restriction, and opponents of the mask mandate argue this should extend to masks as well.

But that is not our situation. Masks are not self-protection devices. Masks protect everyone around you.

“We found objectively that masks are critically important. They’re very effective at protecting the people around you. If you’re wearing a mask, you’re protecting others,” said Dr. Matthew Callstrom, Mayo Clinic radiologist.

A study conducted by Mayo Clinic in 2020 found when both the source and target were masked, the number of COVID-19 particles in the air were reduced by 99.5%, significantly decreasing the chance of transmission.

Something as simple as wearing a mask can have monumental effects on the spread of COVID-19. Yet, it can be difficult to ensure all students are using a face covering, especially when students are packed shoulder to shoulder during passing time.

While enforcing masks during passing time has proven difficult, the classroom is where it truly needs to be enforced. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your risk of being infected is increased when you are near someone with COVID-19 for over 15 minutes. During a five-minute passing time, students are not in contact with others for long enough to pose a significant threat. When in a classroom for 90 minutes where complete social distancing is impossible, students are at a higher risk of transmission. This classroom is where the mandate could be most effective.

However, all the mandates in the world are pointless if they aren’t enforced. Mask enforcement at Kennedy is far from perfect. There’s no true deterrent to wearing a mask incorrectly. The most devastating action most staff members take against you is resignedly telling you to wear the mask correctly.

We can’t afford to lose our conviction now. No matter how long the mandate lasts, unless we’ve reached herd immunity, we will have to live with masks. We don’t have to like them, but we have to put aside our feelings and focus on the facts: Masks are effective. They protect you and everyone around you, regardless of your vaccination status.

Time and time again, masks have been shown to be a powerful form of mitigation. As cases continue to rise and people continue to die, it is time to push our aversion down and mask up.