The official student newspaper of St. John's School.

On Nov. 15, masks became optional for Upper School students and teachers.

Opinion: Peer pressure influences students to unmask

December 19, 2021

Freshmen Katharine Yao and Lily Feather share their thoughts on the Upper School’s mask-optional policy that went into effect starting on the week of Nov. 15.


Ashley Yen

On Nov. 15, masks became optional for Upper School students and teachers.

Over the summer, my family purchased a pulse oximeter, and we would each measure our oxygen levels a few times per day—low oxygen levels can indicate damage in the lungs from Covid-19. I rolled my eyes at this ritual; it seemed so pointless with my entire family fully vaccinated. I always had a normal reading—between 98% and 99%—but then one of my relatives, Ying, tested at about 85%, far below the healthy threshold.

The next day, an ambulance drove up to the house. Restricted to the laundry room, the dog and I waited in tense silence as my family spoke with the paramedics, since Ying could not understand English. When I was released from my holding cell 30 minutes later, Ying was gone. When the paramedics tested Ying’s oxygen level, the look on their faces told them everything.

Ying was hospitalized and dependent on an oxygen concentrator for over a week. The doctors had to call my family to translate. I heard snippets of conversations: “please tell her…worsening…won’t listen.”

One doctor even said that Ying would have died if not for the vaccine.

But the vaccine alone is not enough; everyone Ying lived with was fully vaccinated. I was waiting in the living room when Ying was brought back home. They walked slowly, supported by their spouse and daughter, two wires poking into their nostrils. I was carrying a fresh box of tissues. By the end of the day, the box was empty.

And so, after receiving the school email detailing the plan to lift the mask mandate, I knew I was not ready to be unmasked at school or anywhere else. After witnessing Ying’s illness, I realized that preventing the spread of Covid with masks is just as important as being vaccinated. Vaccines are great—but, even though they open up new opportunities, nothing can offer complete protection. I do not wear a mask to protect myself, but to protect others. Although I myself am not at risk, I know that many of my peers have family members or friends who could face more serious symptoms, and I wear my mask to protect them as well as my own family. It would break my heart to know that someone passed away because of me.

About the Writer
Photo of Katharine Yao
Katharine Yao, Staff Writer

Katharine Yao ('25) joined The Review in 2021 as a freshman. She enjoys making yogurt bowls and arranging fruit platters. She knows that she uses way too...

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One of my family members is also at-risk and had a health scare last year. I love her dearly and hate to choose between staying away or putting her in danger. It’s hard to visit her with a clear conscience when I know I have been around a large number of unmasked classmates.

Although everyone agrees that the masks need to come off at some point, choosing the most appropriate time to lift the mask policy matters. Students are eager to travel and hold family gatherings during the holidays, so ending the mask policy now seems rushed. A majority of now-unmasked students returned to school after Thanksgiving trips, which could have caused a surge of Covid at SJS.

Recently, South Africa reported cases of the Omicron variant. The variant has already spread to several other countries including Belgium, the U.K. and the U.S. Early observations show Omicron to be more transmissible than Delta and more likely to infect people who are already vaccinated. 

Although we trust vaccines, we know they are not 100% effective. Because new variants keep emerging, it is time to stop using our vaccinated status as a way to dismiss COVID concerns. A better time to reverse the mask mandate would be in the early spring, when the cold winter months are over, and we know more about the Omicron variant.

Wearing a mask is simple and effective. We have so many more freedoms this year, and it would be a shame if we were to lose them just because people choose not to wear a mask.

The number of mask-wearing students has dropped dramatically and steadily since the mask mandate was lifted on Nov. 15. When so many students are unmasked, it is easy to succumb to peer pressure.

Before, when the mask mandate was still in effect, many students said that they would wait to see what the majority was doing before deciding whether or not to wear a mask. The number of people wearing masks will trickle to almost none if self-consciousness supersedes safety.

Besides, there has been a silver lining to mask-wearing beyond protecting us from Covid and the flu: we have been shielded from some of the most awkward side effects of puberty, including breakouts and braces.

I empathize with students who want to see the full facial expressions of their friends and teachers — I miss those moments of connection, too. But this loss does not justify the end of the mask policy.

Given the choice of going unmasked or protecting the safety and health of our at-risk relatives, we will always choose safety and health over the illusion of invulnerability.

Wearing a mask for a few more months will not cause any harm, but not wearing a mask in the face of this winter very well might. We learned it in kindergarten, and it’s still true: safety comes first.

About the Writer
Photo of Lily Feather
Lily Feather, Managing Editor

Lily Feather ('25) joined The Review in 2021 as a freshman. Though she does not work for The Independent, she wishes she had the "cool journalist" vibe...

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