Redwood unmasks due to low COVID-19 case numbers

Anna Royal

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic enforcing school safety restrictions, California lifted the mask mandate for K-12 schools on March 12, 2022. At Redwood, the order ended on Monday, March 14. Due to decreased rates of COVID-19 cases across the state, California health officials feel that it is now safe to only “strongly recommend” masks in schools.

 Principal David Sondheim is confident in removing the school’s mask mandate but is ensuring that Redwood continues to take other precautions, such as keeping doors and windows open. Sondheim also strongly encourages students to wear a mask if exposed to the virus and follow the COVID-19 protocols.

“I want to encourage students and parents to follow the guidelines on public health. If you are experiencing symptoms, follow the guidelines, stay home and test accordingly. I think it is the best way that we can transition,” Sondheim said. 

Sondheim is hopeful that the removal of the mask mandate will pose some benefits for the school community.

I am excited that students and staff will be able to see each others’ faces fully and be able to have the comfort of not having a mask [on] if they choose. It is helpful for our instructional process to be able to see students’ faces and read visual cues, [as to] whether students are engaged or are understanding,” Sondheim said.

Sondheim also recognizes the end of the mask mandate as a transition phase that could result in tensions between community members.

“My biggest hope is that everybody will treat each other with respect and realize that we are in a phase now where people can decide for themselves. If [students] choose to wear a mask, we want to support them, and if they choose not to wear a mask, we want to support them. Hopefully, we can let each person make that decision for themselves given their own situations, which vary tremendously.”

Sophomore Darya Shafaie is optimistic about the lifting of the mask mandate and enjoys seeing Redwood “unmasked” for the first time.

Walking down the hallways, students kept their masks on during the mask mandate.

“Since most of the school is vaccinated, I think it is safe enough for people to take off their masks,” Shafaie said. “[It is nice] getting life back to normal.”

According to a March 2022 Bark survey, before Redwood lifted the mask mandate, 65 percent of students were sure that they would remove their mask on March 14.

Mark Reynolds, an Advanced Placement U.S. History and American Literature teacher, views the lifted mask mandate as a benefit to students’ academic and social lives.

“There are negative consequences to wearing masks as far as socializing, relationships and the human connection … that’s why it’s worth at least giving people a choice at this point in time, given where cases are,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds chose to remove his mask due to the educational benefits that he believes students get from being able to see his face. He also acknowledges the problems that the lifted mask mandate poses for students who are immunocompromised or have high-risk loved ones.

Discussing plans, many Leadership students converse with masks off after the lifting of the mask mandate.

“For a small subset of the population that is really worried about COVID-19, I worry that they are going to feel some anger and frustration about this policy because they do not have a choice to go to school, and they do not want to get COVID-19, so their only option is to wear a medical-grade mask,” Reynolds said. 

Geometry teacher Allison Kristal shares a similar view to Reynold’s on the mask mandate change’s effect on high-risk students. However, she feels confident that the community will remain safe.

“I think that our vaccine rates at school are great; most students and most staff are vaccinated,” Kristal said. “We’re doing all the right things, and we have good air filtration systems in all the classrooms. It feels like this is the right time to do it.”

Kristal, although somewhat nervous, sees a benefit in seeing her students’ faces and sharing her expressions with them in the classroom.

“I feel a little anxious because it’s a new phase, but I am also excited to see people’s faces,” Kristal said. “It will be nice for students to see our faces, our expressions and our smiles. I think there is so much expressiveness in our faces in how we communicate and in how we relate to each other.”

While Kristal enjoys the return to normalcy, she still fears the risks and possibility of contracting COVID-19.

“It would be hard to be out for a week or two [if I got COVID-19] … the ripple [effect] that it [would have] on my family. My husband owns a small business, and if he were to get sick, he would not be able to do his job,” Kristal said. 

Chatting during the passing period, students walk inside without masks on.

Kristal added that COVID-19 has caused her to be isolated from her students and vice-versa. 

“I think that we are starving for that human connection. Everyone is really looking to go back to normal and be able to socialize and interact in the way we have prior to the last two years,” Kristal said. 

To be able to return to normalcy, Sondheim believes that empathy and respecting and supporting others’ decisions are key.

“Everybody’s in a slightly different place, so let’s all be understanding and supportive of each other, and hopefully [we can] move forward safely,” Sondheim said.