Unmasking school pupils in New York already feels like yesterday’s news | Emma Brockes

My children can’t remember a time when they didn’t go to school in masks. The first lockdown, in March 2020, happened halfway through kindergarten, and as far as they’re concerned they’ve never seen their teachers’ faces unmasked, or enjoyed an unmuffled exchange with them. They are masked in the playground and the gym and at their after-school programme, for up to nine hours at a stretch. They are so accustomed to masks at this point that they ask to wear them when it isn’t required.

All of this is about to change, when New York, which still has some of the strictest Covid regulations in the US, prepares to relax its school mask mandate next week. Barring an “unforeseen spike”, Eric Adams, the city’s mayor, announced that, on Monday 7 March, he was willing to allow New York’s one million public schoolchildren to return to unmasked learning. Elsewhere, mask use is visibly waning, even among the vulnerable elderly. It was noted on Tuesday night that, prior to President Biden’s State of the Union address, the 79-year-old moved through the chamber unmasked, dispensing hugs.

The US is, in this regard, a stage or so behind England, which has abandoned all Covid precautions either as a sensible gesture towards moving on, a piece of political cynicism or a sign of giving up.

It’s an odd effect of Ukraine displacing Covid in the news that, overnight, wearing a mask seems simultaneously a more trivial inconvenience (“try sleeping in a bomb shelter”) and, for a lot of people, I suspect, a less pressing need. In New York, the daily average of people testing positive for Covid has dwindled to 1.9%, well down on the 3.41% average for the past month, but that’s not the whole story. My own lassitude – I still wear a mask in public indoor settings, but mainly out of politeness, habit and conformity – is less linked to the numbers than to an abrupt and acute sense of history moving on.

One strand of this is the experience of seeing a lot of people catch Omicron and sail through it without symptoms. Another, not articulated perhaps but still setting off internal sirens, is the restlessness caused by an imminent season change. It’s about to be spring, a new dawn; vaccines are available for everyone over five; we did the right thing for two years; this is enough now. There are obvious flaws to this logic. It’s myopic. It’s insensitive towards those for whom Covid still represents a significant risk. It’s also irrational. To give up worrying about Covid because Russia invaded Ukraine doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The truth is that any significant shift back to normalcy requires a level of arbitrary line-drawing. Given that Covid can’t be eradicated, a measure of community infection will always be present, requiring a balance of risk and reward. I’m convinced that the quieter of my two kids has never uttered a sentence her teacher has been able to hear. Where, on the scale between death and “no big deal”, does this rank? I keep reading pieces about how the old world has gone, how there’s no “going back” to the way things were, but that seems to me a truism of time passing. And, just as anti-mask campaigners are powered by factors not based in science, plenty of people are invested, for obscure psychological reasons, in catastrophising the data. There will come a point, relatively soon, when, if you want to ride the elevator alone, you’ll be expected to bear the inconvenience and step out to wait for the next one rather than expecting others not to step in.

The kids will do as they’re instructed and, as they adjusted to masks overnight, they’ll almost certainly snap back just as seamlessly. Which isn’t to say we’ll throw all ours out next Monday. It will come down to numbers, and not Covid ones. For the first few days after the mandate lifts, my assumption is that everyone will send their kids to school in masks. Slowly, and without a decision expressly being made, the kids will start shedding their masks in the playground. Through lack of enforcement, those masks will quickly be lost. Until a new variant changes the parameters again, the guiding principle will be less one of herd immunity than herd behaviour. When I asked my two what they wanted to do on Monday, they said: “Let’s wait and see what everyone else does.”

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