Students wear masks as they walk through a hallway at CAPA

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Masks are still required in Philly public schools, but that could change soon. Following a drop in COVID-19 cases that led to relaxed requirements for indoor spaces across the city, health officials hinted the district could lift the school mask mandate next week, on March 9.

Some students are worried about the confusion and safety risk such a change might cause.

“I don’t understand why we keep repealing mask mandates in response to a drop in COVID cases,” said Kealt Rogers, a junior at Bodine High School in Northern Liberties. “Why would you remove something [with proven] effectiveness, and act surprised when numbers rise again?”

Sarah Weill-Jones, a disability youth activist and senior at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia, noted immunocompromised students are at a higher risk. She views the mask mandate as even more vital for their protection.

“I understand people are tired of masks, but we will go right back to wearing them if cases go up when we take them off,” said Weill-Jones.

Other students think it won’t make a lot of difference — because masking wasn’t really enforced, anyway.

“My school is kind of lenient in terms of mask-mandates, because although people may ‘wear masks,’ they don’t wear them correctly,” said Zora Ball, a sophomore at String Theory Charter School in Center City. “Students and even some teachers wear masks with their nose or mouth exposed, which defeats the entire purpose of wearing one in the first place.”

In Philly, masks are still required on public transit, in airports, health care facilities, and schools and institutions of higher education, but the mandate has been dropped for most indoor spaces because the city is “All Clear COVID Response Level.” That’s according to the Health Department’s new system, which calculates risk based on a collection of metrics including case count, positivity rate, and hospitalizations due to COVID.

Many suburban elementary and high schools around the region began dropping mask mandates last month, after the CDC relaxed its guidance for how to evaluate when masking is required.

Signs throughout Philly schools advise of the masking requirement Credit: Kaitlyn Rodriguez for Billy Penn

In schools with thousands of people roaming around, students say it’s hard to keep up with these mask requirements and changes. Students also must remove masks to eat lunch.

“In a school setting, inside the classroom, the masks work,” Dinalis Jones, a junior at Franklin Towne Charter in Bridesburg, “but in places like the cafeteria, it’s very hard. For example, lunch is a break for us. None of us ever wear our masks and we sit very close together as we’re eating maskless.”

Jones said masks are also often pulled down as students talk to one another during assemblies: “The whole space is filled as we’re all sitting side by side talking to each other throughout.”

A month ago, the School District of Philadelphia actually doubled down on the necessity of masking by encouraging students and staff to stay away from cloth masks and wear the more protective N95 or KF94 masks. Now it is expected to end the mandate.

COVID cases have slowed down, but to return to the normal that we all desire, it is on teachers, staff, the district, and each individual to establish a safe and a comfortable environment for everyone around them.

“I hope this is the last wave … but we should at least wait a bit more. Cases have gone down then spiked up again due to a new variant,” said Weill-Jones, the senior at CAPA. “Mask wearing should be mandatory. Not only to protect our students and teachers, but their families. It’s a sign of respect.”

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Gabby Rodriguez is a Philadelphia-based young Latinx multimedia creator and artist. They are a high school student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and a WHYY student...