Latin’s Transition to Mask-Optional School Sparks Varied Community Responses


Since Latin’s transition to mask-optional school, students and faculty alike have expressed strong opinions regarding the shift, on both ends of the spectrum.

Sophomore Zuhair Alsikafi said, with a now-visible smile, “It feels really good to be able to see my friends’ whole faces.” Zuhair, like all sophomores, started his freshman year on Zoom, then experienced multiple hybrid learning models, and was finally able to return fully in-person this year. Now, he gets to see many of his classmates’ and teachers’ faces for the first time.

After one semester of “normal” school his freshman year, Patrick Shrake, like many others, went through the whirlwind of ever-changing school models. Now a junior, finally in-person and unmasked, Patrick agreed with Zuhair. “Getting the feeling of pre-COVID school again has been very freeing,” he said.

While most students have taken the new policy as an opportunity to abandon their masks, some have chosen not to for a variety of reasons. Junior and head of Latin’s Chronic Illness and Disability Alliance (CIDA) Megan Riordan said, “While I am happy for anyone who is able to make a choice in going mask-optional, since I am high risk, I do not feel I have that same choice at this time.” She added, “This pandemic is still a great concern to me and many other members of CIDA, so wearing a mask is still essential.”

Though Megan has found herself in many classes where she is the only masked student, she said, “There are many reasons members of the community are still choosing to wear masks, so not being questioned or judged for it makes being at school with the changes a little bit easier.”

Mutual empathy has been essential throughout the transition to mask-optional learning at Latin. Junior Carmen Pastrana said, “Everyone in our community supports one another and wants every person to feel safe and comfortable whether or not they wear a mask.”

“On Tuesday, I witnessed students asking teachers who were wearing masks if they would like for [their class] to wear masks as well,” Carmen said. “I thought this demonstrated a very positive environment that persists at Latin.”

Unlike most students, many teachers have chosen to remain masked in school. This pattern possibly reflects similar sentiments to those that drove the Latin School Union to request that masking be mandatory in all school buildings until April 11, a week after the school’s return from spring break.

Though Upper School math teacher Chris van Benthuysen said he does not see any problem with the mask-optional policy, agreeing that from a medical standpoint, such a shift is reasonable, he did note, “The decision to change this policy seemed rushed and its implementation not clearly thought through.”

Mr. van Benthuysen, who emphasized that he was offering his own opinions and not speaking on behalf of the union, added, “It was curious to me that we didn’t build in more time for discussion around the change with students, particularly since literally half the student body has never been in the Upper School as an unmasked community.” He said he thought that the anxiety that some may face in the wake of this new change might be distracting in an already busy time of the year, right before Project Week and spring break.

Ultimately, Mr. van Benthuysen said he thought that the school should wait until after break to go mask-optional. “For me, throughout this pandemic, I’ve felt that all of our steps towards pre-pandemic life need to be very deliberate and infrequent,” he said. “Transitions in the way we operate come at a mental cost as we are forced to adapt to new circumstances.”

During and in the weeks following winter break, the Omicron surge brought many more restrictive mitigation measures back, reminding many of the early pandemic months. Mr. van Benthuysen said, “I definitely returned to that same place mentally, so to be here not even two-and-a-half months later is a dramatic 180 to ask the mind to keep up with.”

Mr. van Benthuysen spent some time in each of his classes to discuss the shift with students, focusing on the varying emotions community members may have about it. “Regardless of how real or imagined the threat to our health and safety is,” he said, “the anxiety we have in response is real and we need to be aware of that.” Mr. van Benthuysen is keeping his mask on, for now.

On the other hand, Upper School math and economics teacher Tim Kendrick is among what seems like a minority of teachers who have chosen to teach unmasked. As a statistics teacher, Mr. Kendrick said he has made his decision using available data, in particular from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). With average daily cases declining in Cook County, positivity rates falling below 1%, and vaccination rates above 98% in the Upper School, Mr. Kendrick feels safe ditching his mask.

“It’s going to significantly enhance how connected I feel to my students,” Mr. Kendrick said. In particular, Mr. Kendrick noted that he relies on his ability to see students’ faces to measure engagement and understanding in his classroom.

Still, Mr. Kendrick said, “There are countless totally understandable and great reasons why people might be masking.” He added, “The worst outcome of this policy would be if peer pressure makes a student go one way or the other, which is likely to be unmasking when they prefer to mask.”

Senior Summer Pratt echoed students’ concerns regarding the need to continue masking. “The trouble for me is I interact regularly with three people who are potentially high risk,” she said. During performances of the Upper School musical, which were mask-optional for students on stage, the majority of students chose to take off their masks. But Summer had to consider her sister, who has an autoimmune disease. “I felt like I wouldn’t be protecting her to the best of my abilities if I decided to take off my mask just for aesthetics,” Summer said.

Junior Cole Hanover also performed in the musical, though he chose to unmask. “It really was the best-case scenario,” he said, “because the show ended up being performed the exact way it was intended.” However, he added, “It was really scary to think about being the one positive case who ruins the show.” The show’s production could have been threatened by even one COVID case among the cast and crew.

Sophomore Lauren Altman does not feel as passionately as Cole when it comes to masking in school. “I don’t really have a preference,” Lauren said, although she did note how Latin’s transition to mask-optional has felt strange. “It feels weird to not wear a mask, but I’m happy that we’re back to ‘normal,’” she said.

Though current opinions vary when it comes to the new policy, Summer thought that, in time, more people will feel comfortable returning to pre-pandemic practices. “We all want our masks off,” she said. “We are just moving at different paces.”