CHICAGO — To mask or not to mask? That is the question in school hallways and classrooms, as Chicago students debate whether a statewide mask mandate should extend for the rest of the school year — and how far administrators should go to enforce it.
In Illinois, a high-profile court case has put school mask mandates in the spotlight after a judge issued a restraining order challenging a gubernatorial emergency order on masking in more than 170 school districts.
Several of those districts have kept the status quo, but some covered by the order have quickly moved to make masks optional. In cities where the issue has been tossed to school boards, there have been shouting matches and late night votes.
In Chicago, a safety agreement with the district’s teachers union upholds mask-wearing and guards against immediate change.
For this piece, Chalkbeat teamed up with student journalists from the Medill Media Teens program at Northwestern University, who interviewed classmates about their views on mask mandates. The reporters, who represent five high schools across the city, are Iliana Garner, Ezekiel Wesonga, Norah Hendrickson, Megha Khemka, Emily Dominguez-Solis, Allen Douglas Duncan, Leslie Riquelme, Hezekiah Gwin, and Devon Henson.
Here is what students said.
Lola Prisco, 16, junior, Northside College Prep
“I think the mask mandate is fine, it just needs to be reinforced more. It’s good in theory, but at school, the teachers and lunch monitors don’t really make sure people are following it.”
Jibri Tucker, 16, junior, Kenwood Academy
“I absolutely hate the mask mandate. Half of the time I can’t breathe under my mask. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to die.”
Nakayla Outlaw, 15, sophomore, Kenwood Academy
“Honestly, I do not like wearing a mask all day but it’s good for our health so I don’t mind. I wish we can all participate in wearing a mask so there will be less COVID cases and we can soon stop wearing masks.”
Michael Devlin, 16, junior, Jones College Prep
“I’m honestly considering not going to school if some kids at school aren’t wearing their masks.”
Sara Lobato, 16, sophomore, Noble Street College Prep
“The mask mandate is important in keeping both students and school faculty safe.”
Piotr Fedczuk, 17, senior, Northside College Prep
“In a pandemic, it should be our top priority to prevent the spread of COVID: especially in a crowded building like a school. The mandate is invariably there to protect us, the students, and the faculty at Northside who are extra vulnerable to COVID.
As someone who has gotten COVID, it really wasn’t fun. I woke up at 3 a.m. with cold sweats and was constantly drained. The two weeks of quarantine were even less fun. Without the resources available at school, I fell severely behind. Three weeks later, I’m still trying to catch up.
Anyone looking to repeal the mask mandate not only sacrifices lives, but also threatens to put disadvantaged students even farther behind — all in a refusal to wear a piece of fabric.”
Isabelle Montalvo, 15, sophomore, John Hancock College Preparatory High School
“It makes me feel safer about COVID and I’m also really self-conscious about the way I look, so having a mask on helps me feel more comfortable; helps achieve gender euphoria.”
Essence Jackson, 17, senior, Kenwood Academy
“It’s not mandated enough and students aren’t penalized for not having them on. Also, at Kenwood, staff does not ensure the mask mandate is put into effect in areas like the library and gym room.”
London Sims, 15, freshman, Phoenix STEM Military Academy
“I believe the mask mandate is a very smart decision. As for sports I believe we could be a bit more lenient for players because of how hard it is to breathe running back and forth with a mask on.
In aspects of the classroom, if you are having small groups or a different activity having the mask lowers the risk of someone closer to you exposing you to COVID, which makes me feel safer from catching it.”
Marcel Brown, 15, sophomore, Phoenix STEM Military Academy
“I honestly don’t really like the rules of wearing the mask. I have asthma, and it can be hard to breathe. When it comes to sports you can get exhausted and breathe heavy and that can make it worse and dizzy. It isn’t good for your health for you to wear the mask doing sports or [with] a disease.”
Daniel Vasquez, 18, senior, Phoenix STEM Military Academy
“I’m perfectly fine with the mask considering the number of COVID cases are low. I believe the mask mandate helps.
I think the way lunch is set up in the area is too crowded. The lunchrooms are too crowded, especially having people next to each other because in the event a kid does have it that’s an easy spread to a good 20 to 30 kids exposed.
In sports, I believe if they are tested before a game they should have the choice to or if vaccinated as long as the school allows it depending on the sport that has athletes so close to each other.
In classrooms, the mask should always be on. You don’t know who has it, who has been exposed to it, and who they are around when gone after school.”
Aretha Lidell, 17, senior, Kenwood Academy High School
“I think it’s stupid, and it’s lowkey against our rights, because it’s like they are trying to force us to do it without the physical force.”
Dasire Minor, 17, senior, Kenwood Academy High School
“I feel it’s useful but they don’t do too much about it. They could be more strict.”
Joshua Oraegbu, 17, junior, Kenwood Academy High
“The masks are beneficial to preventing COVID from spreading. Although I wish we can take the mask off to show my beautiful face.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.