As students came flooding back into the building on February 28th, they were thinking about more than just their February breaks.
On February 23rd, 2022, Governor Sununu, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, and the New Hampshire Department Of Education updated their requirements for mask use in schools, making it the individual student’s choice to wear a mask in school or not. On the following Monday, February 28th, Oyster River High School went back to school with a new choice, to either continue to wear a mask or not, for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. The email sent out from the Oyster River Cooperative School District on February 24th stated that when the schools closed for February break, the high school, the largest school in the district, had only three active cases compared to the 80 plus cases a little over two months ago. COVID-19 cases have decreased considerably in the district, making many believe that it’s an acceptable time to lift it.
Lifting the mask mandate was surprising for a lot of people. Waverly Oake-Libow (‘23), who has decided to continue to wear a mask, says, “I was surprised at first but then I understood why it was lifted… I think the change was a little abrupt considering most schools in New Hampshire just got back from February break or are leaving for February break and have been traveling.”
Kim Gowell (‘22), who has decided not to wear a mask, shares her surprise as well, saying, “with the way COVID-19 has had its numbers go back and forth, I didn’t really see us being able to have our masks off for the rest of the year. When my friends and I heard they lifted it, we were so excited. As much as I understand the necessity of masks for the protection of yourself and others, with the booster shot being available to everyone now and the continually lowering case numbers, I feel safe without one.”
Seth Heirtzler (‘22) speaks on why he has decided to keep a mask on, worrying for those who could be affected. “I think it’s irresponsible not to wear one at this point. We may be at a lull in cases at the moment but we’ve seen this exact cycle. Around Christmas time we all visited family without masks and the levels of COVID-19 rose. I understand people not wanting to, I don’t want to either, but it’s a public service. It’s important right now. I wouldn’t be advocating for this if it wasn’t advantageous for the whole community. I worry about people who are immunocompromised, young, and old. They don’t deserve this,” he says.
Barbara Milliken, a French teacher at the high school, is wearing her mask in support of her 16 month old grandson that she spends a lot of time with but can’t be vaccinated. “The matrix changed, so I’m still a little bit leery because I feel for the little kids that can’t be vaccinated,” she says.
The first day back was nerve-wracking for students deciding whether to wear a mask or not. Gowell speaks on this, saying, “on the first day of the mandate being lifted I came in wearing a mask around my chin because I was scared to take it fully off. At first I saw a lot of people still wearing them, but I feel like throughout the day a lot of people chose to take theirs off. Now… I’ve seen the majority of people without masks.”
This past week was the first time most people had seen the rest of their classmate’s faces since before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even though it’s kind of a small change because it’s a small piece of cloth over your face, it makes things feel pre-pandemic and will make people more motivated to go to school and interact with people,” says Oake-Libow.
Due to the fact that the high school has had many successful vaccination clinics, some students feel more comfortable with the knowledge that the majority of the school’s population are vaccinated and believe that this is the first step towards normalcy. “In my opinion I think that it’s fine to be mask-optional because most people are vaccinated with their booster and they can make their own decision on whether they want to wear a mask or not. The majority of the student population wants things to go ‘back to normal’ and I think this is the first step,” says Oake-Libow.
Continuing to wear masks in the future varies from person to person but, “to me, it’s all about safety. If the COVID-19 rates started to rise again and our school chose to keep masks optional, I would probably opt to wear one just to play it safe,” says Gowell. Choosing to wear a mask or not is a personal choice and no one should be judged or bullied for sticking up for their beliefs. Only time will tell what the future holds for Oyster River’s stance on masks and the COVID-19 protocol.