By Julia Demskie, Assistant Editor-in-Chief
What does the bottom half of the world’s face look like? Naturally, human brains strive to fill empty spaces with what makes sense to them. Since March of 2020, this has taken the form of creating noses, mouths, and jaws to match the eyes and foreheads seen in passing while in public.
Globally, people have been living in a world of ear pain and overly expressive eyebrows for nearly two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic turned life as it was inside out. The students and staff at New Paltz High School have been no exception.
Face masks have been required for entry into district buildings since they were opened for the 2020-2021 school year. This changed, however, on Wednesday March 2, 2022.
“I’m happy that the mask mandate is lifted,” says David Thibodeau, a chemistry teacher at New Paltz High School. “I’ve had three shots and COVID- I’m not worried about getting it or giving it to anyone.”
Thibodeau is one of many who are eager to take off their masks in the wake of the COVID-19 spike during the Omicron variant outbreak.
Masks have become a staple in the daily lives of everyone since the start of the pandemic in 2020, both protecting us from contracting the virus, and serving as an indicator of the state of the pandemic. At any given moment, the severity of the threat could be measured by the thickness, material, and number of face masks worn by most individuals.
Though now the future looks bright, as the number of active COVID-19 cases in Ulster County continue to steadily decline as they have for weeks, and New York State mask mandates are being repealed.
The first day in a partially maskless school was exciting for people like Mr. Thibodeau, who felt the loss of connection to the school community with masks in the way. But the lack of masks this Wednesday didn’t evoke the same enthusiasm in everybody in the building.
“It’s kind of nerve racking. We didn’t really have a lot of time to come to terms with it,” admits Merin Hemminger, a senior at New Paltz and among those who have decided to continue masking.
Many students have opted to keep their masks on for the time being, as they are concerned about how hastily the protective measure is being abandoned. It’s difficult to tell what will happen with fewer people wearing masks, and anxieties are running high with anticipation of what the next few weeks will look like.
“I feel like there’s going to be a surge at the end of March,” says Sidney Mayers, a freshman, expressing her fears. “Our immune systems are weaker, since we’ve been masking for so long, and haven’t been exposed to much.”
There has been a pattern of relaxed COVID-19 related restrictions ultimately giving way to recurring surges and stricter regulations being established once again. With new variant outbreaks cycling every few months, it has become difficult for people to believe the end is truly within reach.
“We’ve done this before, the whole ‘OK, we can unmask now,’ and then it was pulled back,” recalls Hemminger. “I just don’t know how long this is going to last.”
For students who decided to keep their masks on, the friendly smiles decorating the hallways on Wednesday, although refreshing, are stained by the looming possibility of steps backward into the depths of the all consuming pandemic.
The decision to continue wearing a mask or to take it off has proved to be a deeply personal one, and has highlighted some underlying division, whose foundation already existed in the student body. Students and teachers alike, in the days leading up to the mandate being lifted, have tried to stress the importance of respecting the choices of others.
“I thought about my pleasure versus everyone else’s benefit. If I get COVID, it doesn’t just affect me, it affects everyone around me,” explains Mayers, reflecting on her decision to continue masking while in the school building.
More factors than just public health have been at the forefront of people’s decision making process. To teenagers who have gotten used to hiding half of their face behind a piece of cloth for two years, it can be intimidating to reveal what is underneath to so many people at once. There has now been a sense of vulnerability attached to the image of one’s complete facial expressions.
“I was very conflicted,” says Hemminger, referring to her decision to continue wearing her mask.
The abrupt change has certainly prompted some adjustment from everyone in the building, as they all try to navigate an ever dynamic global pandemic at their own door.
“It’s not just a fear of the virus, it’s a fear of change,” says Maggie Heenan, a Junior at New Paltz High School, regarding the collective hesitance to go maskless.
Such worries can only be expected from a world that’s been told that wearing a mask is the right thing to do for the past two years.
“I think more people will become more comfortable with not wearing it as time goes on,” affirms Thibodeau.
The only thing many students and staff feel is left to do is wait for the consequences of this abrupt change, and anticipate whatever it may bring about.
“We have to hold ourselves accountable and be responsible… I really hope there isn’t a surge, but if there is, we’re all well prepared from last year,” Mayers concludes.