To Mask or Not to Mask

Stevenson lifts mask mandate, receives mixed reactions


On Tuesday, Feb. 22, Stevenson temporarily suspended its enforcement of a mask mandate on campus. This change has followed a series of legal developments that have dismissed emergency rules for COVID-19 protocols, allowing students and faculty to decide whether to mask or unmask according to individual preference.

In early Feb., Sangamon County Circuit Court issued a temporary restraining order on the mandates requiring masks in schools, weekly testing for school employees and quarantining of close contacts to confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases. The state’s appeal of the order was rejected by the Fourth District Appellate Court on Feb. 17.

Likewise, on Feb. 15, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) voted against extending the state’s emergency rules to enforce state mask and population testing mandates. The ruling has contributed toward the district’s decision to make wearing a mask optional. 

“The failure to extend the IDPH emergency rules by JCAR and the ruling by the Appellate Court have raised a significant legal issue regarding the District’s continued authority to enforce the Governor’s mask mandate,” District 125 Superintendent Eric Twadell and Stevenson Principal Troy Gobble said in a statement emailed to students and families.

Whether an individual chooses to wear a mask seems to be largely dependent on personal circumstances and levels of comfort. For Spanish teacher Patrick Grady, his family’s previous encounters with COVID-19 have contributed to his decision to unmask.

“I’ve had the vaccine, and I’ve gone through it, as well as pretty much everybody in my family,” Grady said. “They’ve been okay, so I think my personal experiences shifted my perspective.”

As of March 4, the Lake County Coronavirus Data Hub reports that COVID-19 cases in the 60069 zip code have decreased 63 percent in the past 14 days, compared with the previous 14-day period. Grady said that this drop in cases has further contributed to his comfort in not wearing a mask.

Like Grady, Niva Musunuri ’24 has chosen to wear a mask less frequently during school. While she shares the same sentiment as Grady about decreasing COVID-19 numbers, her decision to unmask has also been largely influenced by social implications.

“When the mask mandate was lifted, I still put my mask on for the first day because I was hesitant about taking it off,” Musunuri said. “But once I saw people starting to take their masks off, I felt more comfortable taking it off.”

Other students, like Sachet Verma ’24, have continued to wear a mask without it being mandated. While Verma said that he believes that people should have the choice to wear a mask, he also has concern for the safety of members of the community.

“I think the factor that has most influenced me is the fact that I have high-risk members at home and I really want to keep them safe,” Verma said. “But that’s not possible really if nobody wears a mask.” 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend that individuals wear masks in school regardless of new mask-optional policies. With students like Verma and Musunuri following this guidance to different extents for personal reasons, Stevenson’s administration has encouraged community members to show empathy by accommodating the comfort level of their peers.

“We sincerely hope that as we temporarily suspend the enforcement of masking everyone will remain committed to understanding and respecting the personal choices that faculty, staff and students will make,” Twadell and Gobble said in their statement.

Many students have acted in accordance with the administration’s suggestions by working to recognize the needs of their peers. Both Verma and Musunuri have said that they have not encountered conflicts with others for their respective choices, and Musunuri said that she tries to stay cognizant of individual health circumstances.

“Most of the time, I’m wearing my mask in places where the teacher is wearing a mask or an adult is wearing a mask,” Musunuri said. “A lot of teachers have younger kids or parents that are older that we have to be careful about.”

Musunuri added that she puts her mask on around other masked students in order to protect their health and safety. However, the transition to optional masking has not been without some challenge: Musunuri also said that when she chooses not to wear a mask around others, she sometimes feels judged.

Ultimately, Musunuri, Verma and Grady agree that deciding to wear a mask is an individual choice dependent on numerous personal factors. They remain hopeful that Stevenson students and faculty will remain considerate of others as the community transitions to its first mask-optional policy.

“We’re all trying to find the best way to go about it when people have different views and different levels of comfort,” Grady said. “[We’re] trying to be mindful and empathetic with each other.”