Mask on or mask off? How Berkeley kids are navigating California’s new rules

One week into the rule change, Berkeley kids have mostly opted to keep masks on indoors.

Masks on or masks off? How Berkeley kids are navigating California’s new masking rules
Cragmont Elementary students go with and without masks in the school yard, as seen on March 17, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

For the first time since the pandemic began, masks became optional in Berkeley Unified classrooms on Monday. But little seemed to change for thousands of Berkeley students who, for the most part, have decided to keep their masks on indoors.

“It’s just not a big deal,” said one sixth grader at Willard Middle School with a shrug on Thursday morning.

California Department of Health guidance now says schools no longer must require mask wearing, though it is still “strongly recommended.” Berkeley Unified joined many Bay Area schools in lifting its indoor mask mandate Monday.

Students in Robert MacCarthy’s sixth-grade math and science class said they preferred to keep their masks on out of habit and saw little benefit to taking them off. One student said her parents are divided on whether wearing a mask is necessary indoors; for now, she’s keeping her mask on because her mom is immunocompromised.

Some parents have been clamoring to lift the mask mandate and others have been pushing back, worried about family members who are medically vulnerable or are too young to be vaccinated. Many Berkeley kids, on the other hand, approached the topic with nonchalance.

In MacCarthy’s class, students showed little interested in talk of masking and instead were engaged in an elaborate activity their teacher had organized in honor of Pi Day involving complex calculations, crossword puzzles and hopscotch.

After two years of wearing masks, there’s some social anxiety associated with taking them off. MacCarthy said his daughter, a student at Berkeley High, told him students started joking about “mask-fishing.” A play on “cat-fishing,” where someone creates a fake online identity, students had coined the term to reflect how students’ appearance can change when masks are off.

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Robert MacCarthy teaches sixth grade students at Willard Middle School on March 17, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

In Kemal Stewart’s fifth grade class at Cragmont Elementary, most students kept their masks on, while four students chose to take their masks off while working on math problems.

“I told them that it is their right to do that, but let’s show respect to everybody, whatever choice they make,” Stewart said. “I’ve honestly had no issues. I haven’t heard a single student complain.”

During public comment at the school board meeting March 9, several parents said their children had been bullied at school, either for wearing a mask outdoors or taking it off.

School board president Ka’Dijah Brown said she was “disheartened” to hear about the bullying. “I hope that our community will rise to the cause to be respectful the choices that all of our community members decide to make,” Brown said at the board meeting.

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Fifth graders at Cragmont Elementary work together in Kemal Stewart’s classroom on March 17, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Masking has not been uniform across the district: Parents reported classrooms where the majority of students took their masks off, though such instances were relatively rare. Some students take their mask on and off throughout the day, opting for a mask during group work but taking it off while working independently.

“We’re not policing masking,” said Candyce Cannon, principal at Cragmont Elementary, calling it “a family decision.”

Parents dropping off their kids at Cragmont said they understood that, to some extent, their child’s masking habits were out of their control once their kids went to school. “We’re still encouraging her to keep it on, but when she’s in class, it’s out of our hands,” said one parent after dropping off his 1st grader Thursday morning.

As Daija McGlothen waved goodbye to her son, a kindergartener at Cragmont, she called out to put a mask on when he went inside. “I don’t need one,” he replied as he walked through the double doors.

Cannon said that she has already observed changes related to students’ decisions to drop their masks. Students are noticing each other’s facial expressions on the playground, which younger students have to learn to interpret anew. Teachers say it can be easier to teach phonics when you can see students forming letters while reading aloud.

Berkeley’s private schools have also had to navigate similar choices around masking policies. Some private schools, like Maybeck School and Berkwood Hedge, have opted to continue to require masks indoors.

The Berkwood Hedge school administration said in an email to parents that it will “compare what happens to case rates” in Oakland Unified, where masks are still required in class until at least April 15, and Berkeley Unified before making their own decision on masking.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.