Impact of optional masking: staff and students adjust to changing mask mandates


Photo by and used with the permission of Kyle Austin

Masking has been now lessened, with students and staff now having the choice to be mask optional. The recent change has prompted new debate and discussion towards masking.

Mask mandates in Illinois officially became optional on February 28, and staff and students on both sides of the mask debate are learning to adjust to the new normal.

“I definitely see two sides. I see students who are extremely happy to take the mask off and who are engaging in my classrooms. And I’ve also seen students who are still masked who I definitely can sense that […] they’re feeling some anxiety and stress over it and so trying to balance the two, as a teacher, has been challenging to make sure that I’m respecting both students,” Stephanie Piggott, Special Ed teacher, said.

The Board of Education made the decision to make mask wearing optional after courts put a temporary hold on the State’s mask mandates a month ago, a move Governor JB Pritzker disagreed with. Since then, the CDC has also issued a change in their recommendations for masking, allowing staff and students to decide their own preferences for learning. 

The transition from mandate to optional, while a bit uncertain at the start, according to both staff and students Bear Facts spoke to, went smoothly and without conflict. Some teachers said they were even able to see a difference in students, now that they are able to choose their own comfort.

“I’m definitely seeing more [interaction] now versus with the mask because [students] can kind of look across the room and make a facial expression or mouth words to each other. I am definitely seeing more kids being engaged more facially and both socially in the classroom,” Piggott said.

Students said they have even noticed a difference in their learning and social interactions with the ability to show the rest of their face.   

“Everyone has an opinion on whether to wear it or not. I support people’s opinion to wear it. And I support people’s opinion not to wear it. I love that people have the freedom to not wear their masks at school. And you can see that people are interacting more, smiling more and I feel like it just brings so much more joy to the school now,” Lucas Lappin, sophomore, said.

While Lake Zurich is getting used to mask optional, the longevity of it is undetermined. The initial process of the lifting of the mandate was made after the courts decided to put a temporary restraining order (TRO) on Governor Pritzker’s mandate. That ruling said schools could decide what they would require, and the TRO was followed a few weeks later with the CDC’s change in policy. There is no way to predict if or how long these changes may remain in effect, but for now, students are enjoying their options.

“I can learn better. I can show facial expressions, I can smile. I like not having it on because it’s stress free learning. For me at least. I can interact with my friends. I just feel so free. It’s just not a hassle anymore,” Lappin said.

Lappin says he has always had strong opinions on not wearing a mask. In December, he gathered other students who did not want to continue masking and coordinated a protest of the school’s policy, which was following State requirements issued by Pritzker. At Board of Education meetings this fall, many parents’ also expressed opinions in opposition to continued masking, which Board of Education members and the superintendent said played into their decision to change the school policy to allow for individual choice. Their decision was also based on the fact that numbers of school cases were down significantly, according to newsletters emailed to students and parents.

Students are even noticing the decrease in numbers despite the increasing number of students and staff not masking.

“I haven’t seen anyone get sick. I haven’t heard at least anyone get sick so far since we’ve taken our mask off and have this mask optional. I don’t think COVID is at a very bad stage right now because a lot of people are getting vaccinated and it’s kind of going down,” Lappin said.

However, some students aren’t as comfortable removing their masks yet.

“The first day, it was a little concerning, but then I guess more and more people started to do it. I was a little uncomfortable at the beginning. I guess right now I’m used to it. I’m just choosing to wear a mask for my own safety and my family,” Cibi Vadivel, freshman, said.

While many students continue to wear their masks for many different reasons, students and teachers have all voiced different opinions but the school has experienced little conflict. However, Vadivel said they have had a few, subtle disagreements. 

“[At] an extracurricular activity. I was told to take my mask off when I was outside. And I said no, but they kept pressuring me,” Vadivel said, “but not within the school.”

Many students have said the longer the mask option is in place, the more comfortable the two opposing sides become with whatever choice they may make. This continues to be true as the school takes more steps towards lessening social distancing, bringing the environment closer to “normalcy.”