As mask mandates begin to ease around the country, some readers are celebrating while others remain wary of being among large crowds if masks are not being worn.
“Our mask mandate just got dropped, so it’s up to personal choice now,” a high school senior wrote me recently. She tells me that if she were to go to any school event she would still choose to wear a mask. “Not a lot of people are talking about it,” she wrote.
They should be talking about it, and school administrators should be facilitating the conversations. High school is a particularly perilous time when it comes to wanting to fit in. Worrying about whether wearing a mask to an event risks appearing uncool should not be a factor in deciding what’s best for your own health and peace of mind.
It is also natural to want to be free of the masks and other restrictions faced over the past couple of years. We may be done with the idea of being cautious, but COVID is still out there. It remains a concern particularly for the most vulnerable among us.
One challenge we face as we move from treating the pandemic as one requiring public health mandates to ensure everyone’s safety is to acknowledge it is not as pervasive but is still affecting us. We may be ready to move on, but COVID may not be ready just yet to move on completely.
The shift will likely be gradual and complicated. In some college classrooms, for example, even if the college would like to drop the mask requirement, professors might be allowed to teach without wearing a mask while students must still wear them to adhere to municipal regulations. Those same regulations might require the maskless professor to remain several feet away from students at all times.
But what’s a high school student, or anyone else for that matter, to do when they are desperate to start attending public events again, but want to go only if everyone will be masked? They can certainly continue to wear a mask. But can they insist that others do?
Of course not. They can try to insist, but it may remain up to individual choice.
My high school reader could canvass her friends to see whether they plan to continue to wear masks to dances, concerts, or sporting events, but that will not guarantee that everyone at these events is masked.
Rather than simply lift the mask mandate for public events, my reader’s high school administrators should take the time to provide some guidance to students to help them decide. Such guidance may not be heeded, but it’s the right thing to do.
Ultimately, it’s the student’s decision. If she is uncomfortable about being at large events where people are unmasked, she should not go. And she should never feel pressure to not wear a mask out of fear of appearing uncool. That she is wrestling with the decision out of concern about her and others’ health is cool enough.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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