School tightens mask policy enforcement

Audrey Carbonell and Ben Rafal

“Our mask compliance issue had nothing to do with a political stance or even a lack of concern with the community’s well-being. It came from exhaustion,” Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote. Many members of the community did not practice consistent proper mask-wearing over both the nose and mouth prior to the break, he wrote.

The school has put forth stricter policies about mask compliance, stating that students will be sent home without access to remote instruction for the duration of a two-day suspension if they fail to comply with the mask policy. Kelly has also strongly recommended that all members of the community wear more protective KN-95 or KF-94 masks in light of a surge in cases due to the Omicron variant. 

Although recommended, the school did not require students to wear KN-95 and KF-94 masks, Kelly wrote. “While the new research regarding this new variant and the greater success of KN-95 and KF-94 masks protecting against it was shared with employees and parents/guardians, mandating the use of such restrictive masks is not developmentally appropriate for the range of students we serve,” he wrote. “We also made it clear that we are prepared to provide a KN-95, KF-94, or equivalent mask to anyone — employee or student — who would like one.” 

Kelly’s decision for stricter mask-wearing stemmed from research by the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, which found that employees and students should move away from surgical and cloth masks during this stage of the pandemic, he wrote in an email to parents on December 27. 

To minimize the spread of COVID-19, especially the Omicron variant, it is critical for the school community to wear the correct, form-fitted masks on campus, he wrote. “Even with the most appropriate mask in hand, if not worn appropriately, it does little to protect the individual or members of the community.”

Prior to winter break, the majority of the student body remained compliant with the existing mask rules, Dean of Students Michael Dalo said. However, Dalo received complaints from both students and faculty about a periodic lack of mask-wearing from certain community members, he said. “We needed to look at more serious consequences to help students really understand how serious this situation is,” he said. “It’s not just about enforcing rules for the sake of enforcing rules, it’s about protecting everybody in the community.”

“I do think by and large students have tried very hard and have made a lot of sacrifices, as we all have, so I’m not in any way condemning all students.” Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. There are many students who have never violated the mask rules, she said. “But we do have a fair number of students who just repeatedly seemed unable to wear their masks properly, and I don’t think it’s surprising that after a certain point, some faculty lost their patience.

The lack of compliance mainly occurred in communal spaces, such as the library, Lutnick Hall gathering spaces, and Friedman Hall, Levenstein said. Although it was not widespread in classrooms, there were some instances of students feeling uncomfortable by classmates wearing their masks below their nose, she said. “It became a very tense and unpleasant interaction between the adults and students,” she said. “The students felt overpoliced, and the adults felt really frustrated because none of us actually would like to have that kind of interaction with students.” 

Additionally, Levenstein noticed that some students would pull their masks up over their noses as she approached them, she said. “That’s good that they did that, but it also implied that if I wasn’t in sight, their masks would not be over their noses.” Wearing masks inappropriately indicates a lack of concern for the community, she said. “If you decide that you are exempt from the mask rule, you’re putting other people at risk.” 

This past fall, students were allowed to eat snacks and drink in the library, Library Technology Coordinator Melissa Kazan said. However, food will be prohibited for the time being, so that students remain with masks on as the school works through the new restrictions, she said. “We are having a no-reminder policy regarding masks in the library. We’ve been reminding kids all semester to mask up and we have not had 100% compliance, so we are looking for that.”

Even with the new policies in place, UD Library Department Chair Caroline Bartels still needs to remind students to wear their masks when working or relaxing multiple times per day in the library. “It is going to take one kid getting suspended for people to realize that [the administration] is serious,” she said.

Dalo is concerned about the issue of contact tracing in the event that students are non-compliant with the new policy, he said. Previously, students in close contact with a positive case would not have to worry about quarantining if both students were masked and vaccinated. The refusal of one student to wear a mask could trigger a domino effect that the school has not had to deal with this year, Dalo said.

Due to the spike in COVID cases, Mumbi Johnson (11) believes that stricter mask-wearing enforcement is necessary to protect people’s health, she said. “We’re protecting everybody, and I think [the school is] trying to be as safe as possible.”

Delphina Engelstein (11) also thinks that the transition to more protective masks is a smart decision, she said. “If we’re not going to go online, I think it’s best that we’re protecting ourselves to the highest extent,” she said. 

Engelstein does not think that the new mask-wearing enforcement is too harsh, she said. “There’s scientific reasoning for what’s safest for everyone, and it wouldn’t become a policy if it wasn’t going to be effective,” she said.

On the other hand, Phil* (11), who asked to remain anonymous because he feared that people will develop hostile feelings towards him for his beliefs, does not think that masks should be worn at all on campus, he said. “I was supportive of wearing them last year before the vaccines came out,” he said. “But I think it’s ridiculous that only now we are starting to really clamp down on the mask policy.” 

Phil thinks that the stricter enforcements are due to a conflation of case count with death likelihood stemming from the Omicron variant, he said. “We must also remember that this variant is by far the least deadly, and risk of death is practically negligible for anyone who is vaccinated or boosted.” 

Nevertheless, Phil understands the consequences of not complying with the mask-wearing policy, he said. “I also don’t want to be kicked out of the school, so I will comply all I need to.”

Gabe Jaffe (10) worries about the severity of the consequence of a two-day suspension. “I believe that people wearing masks is a very important issue and we should be very diligent about it,” Jaffe said. “However, I do think [a suspension] is a harsh punishment and that it is not the way to get things to work well because it will only make people scared as opposed to wanting to help the greater cause.”

After witnessing non-compliance in the beginning of the school year, Daniel Pustilnik (10) believes that the punishment of suspension is the best remaining option, he said. “I think for a while, people have not been following the mask rule or having their masks beneath their nose, so I believe there needs to be some discipline,” he said. “The warning before you get suspended allows you to have your mask slip down, but if you are a repeat offender then you should be disciplined, and I think suspension is a good way to do that.”

On the first day back from break, Johnson noticed that students were following the mask guidelines, she said. “I’ve seen a lot of people with KN95 masks,” she said. 

Due to the new enforcement, Coco Trentalancia (11) has become more self-aware about how well she follows the rules, she said. “I’m constantly looking at everyone I am around to make sure not only they are safe, but I am as well to protect my family who I come home to every night.”

Kelly also saw improved results with mask-wearing compliance, he wrote. “Based on what we have seen today and yesterday, the student body is working hard to come to school with appropriately fitted masks and masks worn with greater consistency,” he wrote on Wednesday. “I couldn’t be prouder of the response.”

Engelstein does not know how long students will comply with the stricter mask-wearing enforcement, she said. “People usually are better with policies right after they get made, so it’s hard to tell right away if it’s going to have a lasting effect on the community,” she said. 

Kelly’s email prompted media coverage on the school, including articles and tweets that attacked the school’s mask policy. Some public figures have tweeted about this email. Karol Markowicz wrote that the email was “insane,” Megyn Kelly wrote that “they’ve lost their bloody minds,” and Matthew Loop wrote “That’s what happens when you have a bunch of fearful and indoctrinated parents who just roll over in the face of authoritarianism. It keeps getting worse and more nonsensical.”

Daily Mail, a British middle-market newspaper, covered the issue with an article titled, “Elite $57,000-a-year New York City private school Horace Mann that counts Betty White and Jack Kerouac among its alumni threatens to EXPEL students who flout mask mandate.” 

Kelly felt the media coverage was misleading and unfortunate, he wrote. “My love and appreciation for this student body was artfully and intentionally edited out of much of the discussion, and the fact that we are one of a small number of schools who have been consistently open since the pandemic arrived in the U.S. was conveniently omitted as that fact did not fit with the story the media wanted to tell,” he wrote. “More importantly, the coverage is unfortunate in light of the urgency with other matters in the United States and beyond require attention.” 

Kelly believes that the community understands the school’s efforts to hold in-person instruction with as little disruption as possible. “Our parents and guardians and our student body understand and appreciate what we are trying to accomplish this year,” he wrote.

Levenstein stands by the school’s mask policy in its protection of the community, she said. “I would hope that if parents send their kids to the school, it’s because something about HM speaks to them and they trust us and feel confident in our ability to make decisions on behalf of their kids.”

Kelly does not believe that the rule dictating greater mask compliance is too harsh or misguided for a school that serves 150 zip codes hailing from three states, he wrote. “While it’s always okay to disagree with the rules established by the leadership at HM, one must remember to attend or be employed by HM is something pretty special — some might say it’s a privilege,” Kelly wrote. “I prefer to remind everyone that the few rules that matter most at HM focus on the well-being of our community members — intellectually, academically, socially, emotionally, and physically.”