Virginia students navigate ugly mask battle

Alexandra Swan, 17, believes it is wrong to make snap judgments about other people.

But these days, when the senior walks through the doors of her high school in Louisa County, Va., she finds it hard to follow her own rules. Whenever she sees another student – friend, foe or stranger – her eyes jump to the same place: Their mouth and nose, which might or might not be covered by a mask, now that Louisa County Public Schools has complied with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) controversial order that made masking optional.

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“I see these people just not wearing a mask, or wearing one pulled down, like, under their chin,” said Swan, “and my brain just immediately goes, ‘That person does not share the same ideals as me. We won’t get along.’ ” She added: “They may not be a bad person. They may just be thinking the same things as their parents.”

Youngkin issued his mask-optional order, which aims to give Virginia parents choice over masking in both public and private schools, on his first day in office. A fierce fight ensued: Seventy of 131 Virginia school districts refused to comply and kept their mask requirements, according to a Washington Post analysis, and parents and school officials filed a flurry of lawsuits for and against the order. This week, the Virginia General Assembly narrowly passed – along largely partisan lines – a law that requires all schools to go mask-optional on March 1, ensuring every one of Virginia’s more than 1.8 million public and private schoolchildren will face masking decisions and tensions at school in days to come.

As the adults battle over the merits of masking, Virginia students have been forced to navigate the real-life fallout.

The Washington Post asked parents across the state to share how their children are feeling about school masking policies, garnering nearly 200 submissions from families living in at least 25 school districts.

Some Virginia students were thrilled to remove their masks – but their elation quickly soured when administrators in districts that still required masking sent unmasked children into isolated rooms or back to their homes. Other students, especially those with health conditions, were horrified to find themselves seated next to maskless peers, unable to do anything except ask to change seats. All too often, students said, their teachers deny that request, citing instructions from higher-ups not to segregate students by mask status.

School now feels, Swan said, “like a war zone”: A raging partisan battle that no one can opt out of, because every single student arrives with evidence of their politics – those without masks typically lean right, she said – written across their faces. Swan said she has stopped speaking with students who go maskless because they are dismissive of the decision to mask and unwilling to hear a different opinion.

Swan said she cannot wait to graduate and escape to college, where she plans to major in musical theater.

“Before, when masks were all required, you didn’t – it wasn’t like you were making a statement,” she said. “This made everything so much worse.”

– – –

_ Sam Sweetser, 17, and Andrew Kulak, 16

At first, Sam Sweetser and Andrew Kulak were overjoyed by Youngkin’s mask-optional order.

The two best friends, who attend Deep Run High School in Virginia’s Henrico County and swim together on a competitive team outside of school, were ready – more than ready – to rip off their masks after months of muffled, sweaty, generally uncomfortable schooling. Sam returned to in-person schooling as soon as he could last March, while Andrew waited to return until September, put off by the masking rule.

Sam, a 17-year-old senior, said mask-wearing makes it hard to engage meaningfully in class discussions and socially outside of class, given that everyone’s voices and faces are obscured. Andrew, a 16-year-old junior, said his teachers’ masks make it hard to hear the lesson – while his mask proves an irritating distraction.

“It definitely makes it difficult to learn, like you can just feel everything piling up on your face,” Andrew said. “It just makes your face feel thick.”

Both boys said masks also give them bad acne and irritate the skin under their chins.

So on Jan. 24, the Monday that Youngkin’s order went into effect, the two friends showed up to their high school blissfully maskless, even though they knew their district, Henrico County Public Schools, had chosen to defy the governor’s order. The teens believe the pandemic has reached its end, with widespread vaccinations and dropping infection rates, and it is time for students who feel better maskless to be allowed into school without face coverings.

“We just felt like it was necessary,” Sam said of mask-optional policies, “and that someone had to stand up for it.”

Seconds after they walked into the school building, Sam and Andrew said, administrators directed them into an empty auditorium with about a dozen other students who had also come to school without masks. The boys remained there for the rest of the day, supposedly learning asynchronously – meaning they completed assignments without live instruction – although both said they didn’t learn at all.

That persisted for a week. Eventually the boys were moved from the auditorium into an empty classroom “that didn’t have any lights on,” because staffers never bothered to turn them on, Sam said. But they were determined to prevail. When the two teens kept showing up maskless for a second week, officials allowed them back into their classrooms but erected plexiglass bubbles around their desks, making them feel like social pariahs, the boys said.

“I had a teacher put me in a corner with plexiglass, and the sun was glaring off the board and I couldn’t see anything,” Andrew said. “So I still wasn’t learning anything.”

As the standoff threatened to enter its third week, officials informed maskless students that the school was ending its “recent accommodations made in place of mask use” – an apparent reference to the plexiglass – and that students would face “disciplinary action” if they kept attending without face coverings, according to an email shared with The Post. Soon after that, Sam and Andrew caved.

Asked about the boys’ account, Henrico schools spokeswoman Eileen Cox wrote in an email that the district “continues to communicate with families regarding mask expectations and our desire to work with individual families to address concerns.”

Both teens said they noticed a change in how some people at school treated them. Other students who support masking have stopped speaking to the boys: “They kind of treat us like we’re an embarrassment,” Sam said.

Even when both boys again started going to school masked, the social ostracizing has persisted, they said.

Sam said he feels stressed about school all the time since Youngkin’s mask-optional order took effect. He said he appreciates Youngkin’s efforts, but he wishes the governor had made the rules more clear, somehow. He wants the adults to stop fighting and just come up with some solutions.

Fallout from the masking fracas has twice led Sam to stay home from school to protect his mental health.

“I’m just like, ‘I can’t deal with this today,’ ” Sam said. “Just don’t go.”

“It feels like a very toxic environment,” Andrew said of school. “I don’t look forward to going to school at all anymore because – it’s just day after day after day.”

On Thursday, Henrico schools began allowing students to attend class maskless in early obedience to the new Virginia law – and, after their first day of breathing unencumbered, both boys said they were finally feeling better.

– – –

_ Angela Rivera, 18

Angela Rivera knew the dangers of speaking at a Loudoun County School Board meeting. She knew that the county, which is extremely wealthy and politically split, has been in the national spotlight for almost two years for its raucous, ongoing educational culture wars. She knew that one charged board meeting last year culminated in an arrest – and that masking is one of the topics that most upsets the contingent of mostly White, conservative parents who share their displeasure during public comments at almost every board meeting.

But Angela, who is Hispanic and serves as student school board representative, felt she had to speak in support of school mask-wearing now that it was being challenged by the governor. At a meeting in late January, she planned to thank the Loudoun school board for continuing its mask mandate and taking the pandemic seriously.

“I wanted to speak from a student perspective, because you don’t hear much of that on the news,” Angela, 18, who wants to pursue a career in social work, said in an interview. “You hear ‘Parents are fighting for this.’ ‘Adults are fighting for this.’ I wanted to make sure a student voice was heard.”

On that frigid Tuesday night, hers almost wasn’t.

She was barely through her first sentence thanking the school board when a group of mostly White parents in the audience began shouting. She could not make out the words, but she could tell they were disagreeing with her. She heard stabs of laughter. She saw parents hoisting signs into the air, jabbing them toward her. She found herself suddenly unable to read their slogans.

Then, she was unable to speak. Tears rose, and she left the room, her speech unfinished.

Standing in a bathroom, Angela sought to calm herself, to remind herself why she was there. She ticked through the reasons that masking is important, picturing the small classrooms at her school, Park View High, which she said is overdue for a renovation. Social distancing is impossible at Park View, Angela said, and she knows firsthand that teenagers “aren’t the best in hygiene.” She also thought of her older family members, those who need medical care and would be at high risk if they caught the coronavirus.

She told herself that the pandemic is bigger than any one human being, than any person’s political beliefs or desire to go maskless or set of bruised feelings. And she had a realization.

“I tried saying in my head that I’m not speaking to them” – meaning the angry White parents, Angela said. “I’m speaking to the school board, because the school board is supposed to be there for the students.”

She walked back to the meeting room and read her speech all the way through.

“Students need to be masked,” Angela told the sea of adults, “to keep other students and their families safe.”

Almost three weeks later, Loudoun’s superintendent announced he was making masks optional for all students and staff, effective immediately, in response to a court order and the Virginia school-masking law.

– – –

Elizabeth Eads, 13, and John King, 10

Every time John King puts on his mask, his glasses fog up.

That makes it hard for the 10-year-old, who attends elementary school in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, to see the lesson happening at the front of the room, even when he sits close by and squints extra-hard. John’s school system recently made masks optional, but his mother is waiting to opt him out of the mask requirement until infection rates drop – although she plans to submit the form next week.

Knowing that he cannot take off his mask at school, John has given up on his glasses, which he stows in his backpack, useless, during class. But the fact that he cannot learn easily makes the fourth-grader mad.

“Masks should be optional everywhere,” John said, pointing out that so many people in Virginia – including him – have coronavirus vaccinations (more than 70 percent of the state is vaccinated, per state data). “Why do I have to wear a mask?”

Roughly four hours away in Rockingham County, Va., 13-year-old Elizabeth Eads takes the opposite view.

Elizabeth believes masking should be required for a lot of reasons, but the most important of these is her grandfather, whom she calls Papaw. He is one of Elizabeth’s favorite people in the universe, but he’s not always healthy, suffering from a chronic disease that is causing his airways to collapse, Elizabeth said, as well as congestive heart failure.

Before the pandemic, she and Papaw, who is 91, loved spending time together, eating meals together almost every day. Now, she hardly sees him except to quickly drop off groceries – especially since her school made masking optional.

When Elizabeth shows up to her tiny, Christian private school these days, almost the entire student body is maskless, she estimated. This makes her worry for Papaw.

“Say I got covid at school and . . . Papaw needed to go to the hospital, like if he had something in his lungs, then Mom would be quarantining because I had covid and she wouldn’t be able to take him, and Dad would be quarantining,” Elizabeth said.

Elizabeth’s grandmother wouldn’t be able to drive Papaw to the emergency room because she can no longer handle highways. So, “it would be really hard to get him to the doctor,” Elizabeth said.

One of Elizabeth’s close friends prefers to go maskless, she said, which has been tough. Still, when Elizabeth approached this friend one day and explained her concern for Papaw, the girl was receptive, Elizabeth said. She seemed to understand Elizabeth’s desire to protect her grandfather and is wearing a mask at school, although it occasionally slips below her nose.

But Elizabeth no longer dares to talk about pandemic safety with most of the maskless students in her grade. Whenever their chats stray near masks – a topic that inevitably leads to politics, the other conversational danger zone at Elizabeth’s school – Elizabeth diverts the conversational, sometimes by asking about the other student’s dog. If the kid doesn’t have a dog, she brings up dogs in general and how wonderful they are.

There is one boy in particular with whom Elizabeth used to debate politics. But something has changed, she said. “At this point, I kind of realize he’s never going to change his mind – he’s just not, because he’s consuming the media that is really right-wing,” she said. “And there’s nothing I can do about it.”

If Elizabeth cannot find a way to move the discussion away from masks – especially with this boy – she simply leaves.

“I roll my eyes and walk away, because if I get involved, I will get too involved,” she said. Thoughts of Papaw will intrude, she said, and “I will start screaming, or I will start yelling, or I will start crying.”

And she doesn’t want her classmates to see her cry.

– – –

_ Caleb Joines, 12,

Caleb Joines likes school. His favorite subject is English, because he loves to read – especially graphic novels.

But the 12-year-old’s mind has been far from academics recently. That’s because every time he walks through the door of Elizabeth Davis Middle School in Chester, Va. – where masks are optional – for another day of seventh grade, he is putting his life at risk.

“It’s scary” at school since Youngkin’s mask-optional order took effect, he said. “Because I have severe lung issues.”

Caleb was born with esophageal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistula, several long words that mean the pipes Caleb needs to breathe don’t fit together properly. Caleb cannot remember a time when he did not sometimes burst into wheezes, which often led to an asthma attack. He was in and out of hospitals for most of his childhood, his mother said, leading to more lung problems.

For a time, Caleb was unable to do most physical activities. Things got better after he started taking allergy shots and using an inhaler – but when the pandemic hit, things got worse.

The adults, including Caleb’s parents and doctors, warned him that, as he puts it, “I have a higher risk of passing away” than any of his friends. He can still remember when his mother broke the news to him, early in the pandemic.

“She just told me it was a disease or something,” Caleb said of the coronavirus. “And that it could hurt me pretty bad.”

Four times since Youngkin made masks optional, Caleb has found himself seated next to a maskless classmate. Every time, he has approached the teacher and quietly asked to be moved.

Caleb said he would never bring up his concerns directly to his maskless classmates. He does not think they would understand about his lungs. He does not think they would listen. And even if they did, he doesn’t think they would care enough to start wearing masks again.

“They would most likely be rude and say that it’s their and their family’s choice if they’re going to wear masks,” he said.

The first time Caleb asked to move, his teacher placed him at an isolated table in the corner. The second time, a different teacher said she wasn’t sure of the rules and had to check with the principal – who came down from his office, took Caleb aside and gave a minutes-long speech about how it would be wrong and against district policy to “segregate” maskless people from mask-wearers. The school eventually agreed to move Caleb, he and his mother said, but it was an embarrassing, painful ordeal.

The third and fourth times, teachers moved him without issue.

School, Caleb said, now feels scary twice over: First, he is afraid of being seated next to a maskless student. Second, he is afraid of what might happen if he speaks up for himself and asks to be placed in a different seat.

But, he said, the former fear will always outweigh the latter – he will keep asking to sit somewhere else, no matter how much adult disapproval he has to face, from his teacher or his principal or even the governor of Virginia.

“Because I don’t want to end up in the hospital again,” Caleb said. “I don’t want to be hooked up to machines and have to hear people talking about how long they think I have left and stuff like that.”

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