By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

A few weeks into optional masking in the Montclair school district, several students and staff say they have seen few issues with the policy, and they’re seeing members of the community respect one another’s masking decisions.

Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced March 1 that masking would become optional March 7 after a state mandate for schools expired, a decision he said he made based upon guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health and the Montclair Health Department. Optional masking extends to all indoor and outdoor school settings, as well as on school buses.

Surveys of Montclair High School students and Montclair families showed mixed opinions on whether masking should become optional. A Feb. 24 survey of parents by the PTA Council showed 61% of 1,561 respondents wanted masks to be optional on school property, 32% wanted masks to be required indoors on school property, and 7% wanted masks to be required ndoors and outdoors on school property. 

A Feb. 28 survey by student board representatives Samara Haynes and Justin Comini of Montclair High School students found 58% of 600 respondents wanted the mask mandate to stay in place, and 42% wanted the mandate to end. 

As of the start of this week, it seemed about 50% to 60% of Montclair High School students were choosing not to mask, senior class president Leon Wang told Montclair Local. Only about 30% were going maskless in the first week of the optional policy, according to Wang. 

“I’m not 100% if there is a perfect time to ease off the mask mandate, but I think we’ll just have to see how this goes,” Wang said. “Freedom of choice is important to have, but I feel like students should be able to have a comfortable learning environment.”

While there is a small group of students who mock those who choose to wear masks, the majority of students Wang interacts with don’t seem to care what others do, he said. 

“Given the benefits that masks offer, we have nothing to lose if we continue to wear them,” Wang said.

Owen Dodd, a third-grader at Charles H. Bullock School, decided to keep wearing a mask on March 7. His teacher had pushed desks together into groups, and he felt uncomfortable being so close to his classmates unmasked, he told Montclair Local.

But he did take his mask off when he could keep more distance between himself and classmates — during recess, lunch and gym class, he said. Taking off his mask made it easier to hear people and helped keep him cool, he said. And he was glad to take off his mask during gym class, where he said he usually gets sweaty from running around so much. 

This week, Owen was continuing to mask when he and his classmates were really close to each other, but overall he is masking less, his mother, Jaime Bedrin, said. (Bedrin is additionally an adviser to the Montclair Kids News project that provides student submissions for publication in Montclair Local.)

Buzz Aldrin Middle School science teacher Daniel Taylor said he is choosing to wear his mask infrequently. With windows and doors open, Taylor said, he feels comfortable without a mask, teaching classes from the front of his room. If he is helping a masked student and needs to get closer, he said he puts his mask on. 

“I am actually relishing the opportunity to not wear a mask all day long,” Taylor said. “It feels freeing — not only physically, but physiologically.”

Taylor said without a mask, he doesn’t have to speak as loud to his students and he feels like he can get fresher, cleaner air into his lungs more quickly. 

He said he has not heard of any conflicts among staffers choosing whether to mask at Buzz Aldrin.

“Our building administration made it very, very clear that it's an optional policy and whatever anyone decides, that’s at their discretion,” Taylor said. “They should not be mocked and that behavior wouldn’t be tolerated because it's freedom of expression.”

In addition to taking off his own mask, Taylor said he is enjoying being around unmasked students, finally able to see their entire faces.

“It's actually pretty amusing,” Taylor said. “I don't recognize them. They sit in class and I look at them, and I guess. Sometimes I'm right, and sometimes I'm wrong.”

The masks-optional policy is subject to change if case rate and risk levels rise to the high or highest levels under CDC and state Health Department ratings, Ponds said in a March 1 announcement. COVID-19 activity levels will be reviewed weekly, he added.

As of March 21, the district had reported 32 student cases and 3 staff cases since March 7, when the optional masking policy went into effect, according to the district’s COVID-19 data dashboard. Prior to March 7, there had been a total of 436 student cases of coronavirus and 119 staff cases since the beginning of the 2021-22 year.

Montclair Education Association President Cathy Kondreck has not yet responded to messages sent to her union address since March 7 with questions about staff’s thoughts about optional masking. Leaders of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council have not yet responded to messages sent to the organization’s email since Feb. 28 asking for comments on the optional masking decision as well.