Principals Perspective (March 2022) - Rabbi Matthew Bellas
Rabbi Matthew Bellas

Supporting the Transition to Mask Optional

As we make a significant transition into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must acknowledge that this change is not being met with a uniformity of response. We have confidence that it is safe to begin to roll back mitigation practices within the school and are committed to supporting our students, staff and families during this transition. In a large and richly diverse community such as ours, a variety of emotions are being felt. Now, just as we have throughout these unprecedented and challenging past two years, we must unite around our values and take a consistent approach to supporting each other (students, staff, parents/guardians, and the wider community) through the adoption of our “mask optional” policy beginning on Monday. To that end, we gathered Thursday afternoon as a Lower School community over Zoom to review important information, expectations, and practices for this new period. I want to take this opportunity to share what was presented during our meeting so that we may speak a common language and then offer a few recommendations for how families can follow-up on the discussion by providing ongoing support to children at home.

Opening Thoughts:

The Role of the Mask: We remembered that when the pandemic started, we were instructed to wear masks to prevent the spread of our germs in order to protect others. Today, we know that wearing a mask protects us. This is important information to consider as students and their families make decisions about whether or not to wear a mask in school in spaces where that choice is available.

The Mask Optional Change is Safe: We closed the School in March of 2020 in order to observe the mitzvah of piku-ah nefesh/saving a life, the most important commandment in Jewish tradition. We would not make a decision now that would contradict this mitzvah. Based on research, data from our school and the wider community, and guidance from health professionals and organizations, the decision to move into the first phase of mask optional is safe.

The Choice to Wear a Mask is a Family Decision: At the Lower School level, the decision for a student to try mask optional practices or continue to wear a mask at all times is something the family will decide together. 

Mask Optional Environment Policies and Practices:

Mask Optional or Mask Mandatory: All students and staff will have the choice to wear or not wear a mask when in their classrooms or private offices. Masks will be required in the hallways at all times, on the bus, and during all indoor gatherings that are larger than one class section. Visitors to the school will be required to wear masks at all times.

Keeping a Mask Handy: All students and staff members must keep a mask nearby at all times. Place your mask on your wrist/arm or on a lanyard necklace while you are not wearing it on your face so you have it easily accessible in a mask-required space.

Distancing: We will continue to observe 3 feet of distance whenever possible, especially in classrooms where some students and teachers will be choosing not to wear a mask.

Testing: We will continue testing every Tuesday so we are able to keep track of any cases in our school community.

Lunch and Snack: When the weather allows it, we will eat snack and lunch outdoors. We have seen the benefits of the fresh air and open space for our students. When there is inclement weather (rain, cold, wind), we will make an assessment about moving eating indoors. We will have flexibility about this decision for the remainder of the year. We will reassess this decision once the cafeteria is able to be reopened as a communal eating space.

Water Bottles: Water bottles may again be kept in the classrooms (ideally not at the desk because of spills) for easy access to drinking inside the classroom. 

The Social-Emotional Element:
After covering the details of these practices, we discussed the social emotional side of the upcoming change. We talked about how there will be lots of different feelings among the members of our community and that each person’s feelings are valid and must be respected. We shared how feelings will likely go through changes themselves. Whereas someone may have felt excited at one point, they may feel nervous later on. The ups and downs of our feelings are to be expected and are natural. The most important thing is to share openly with family members, friends, and faculty if you need help or support.

Being Guided by Our Middot/Values:
We discussed how some of our middot of the month will help us to navigate the change and the challenges we will face:

Respect and Courtesy: No matter each person’s decision, we will respect it and each other’s privacy by not asking personal questions or judging others; we will treat each other with courtesy.

Community: We will include everyone in activities no matter their mask choice.

Responsibility: We will continue to observe/follow the safety guidelines to keep each other safe and healthy.

Acts of Loving Kindness: As we make this transition, we will show each other kindness and support through the change.
Empathy: We will do our best to connect with each other’s feelings and show support no matter what. We will not comment on other people’s choices or decisions in a negative or critical way.

Our wonderful teachers will be following up on the whole school meeting in their classrooms in the days ahead to support the students through the change along with our guidance counselors and members of the administration. They all have access to the Google Slides presentation that I used during our meeting and you are more than welcome to review it as well.

Reminders and Follow-Up at Home:
In addition to reviewing the content of the meeting that I have shared, there are some additional steps that will help students to be ready for Monday and beyond that parents/guardians may do at home:

  1. Set aside time as a family to discuss the masking decision thoughtfully. Make sure to listen to your children’s thoughts and feelings and share openly what your decision is and the reasons behind it, if it is different from what your child prefers. Do your best to come to an agreement about the plan and develop a schedule for a check-in several days after the change.
  2. Encourage your children to share their feelings, concerns, ideas, and questions openly with you and with their teachers and counselors. Openness will help everyone to manage through the change, especially if anyone is having “big feelings” about it. If anything comes up at home, please share with the relevant members of the faculty.
  3. For students who will be choosing not to wear a mask in their classrooms, try out and practice wearing a lanyard and/or placing a mask on the wrist or arm. I modeled what both of these look like during our meeting today, but it will help the students to get used to these practices if they try them out over the weekend at home.
  4. Please send extra masks into school to be kept in the students’ lockers. Even with lanyards and practice of wrist/arm wearing, masks will get lost and the students will need backups.

Finally, please be reminded that as we make this move to individual/family decisions around mask wearing, teachers will not be keeping track of, following up on, or enforcing those decisions with students. We will not be communicating with families about student mask wearing as our focus will continue to be on the academic, social-emotional, spiritual, and physical learning of our children. 

After two long years, it is now possible to see and feel the possibility of an end to the pandemic and this first step into a time of reduced mitigations is an important one for our community. We look forward to staying in communication with you about the experience of this change and the next steps to come.