Massachusetts high school: We dropped our mask mandate for vaccinated students and staff — and it ruled

Your feelgood story of the day comes from Hopkinton High School, located in a well-off suburb of Boston where — no typo — 98 percent of locals are vaccinated, including more than 95 percent of kids aged 12 to 19. Recently school administrators undertook a bold experiment by the standards of a deep blue state: Could students and teachers who’ve had their shots safely unmask?

Could a cohort of children (who almost never develop severe COVID) safely interact in schools (which have lower infections rates than their surrounding communities) with other human beings who’ve been immunized (and are therefore at very low risk of poor outcomes) without needing to wear face diapers?

Amazingly, the answer was yes. Since November 1, when vaxxed students and safe were permitted to go maskless, a grand total of one student has been infected — and he caught the virus outside school. “The pilot was far more successful than what I had anticipated,” said the chair of the school committee about the trial program. “I’d like to wrap everybody up in bubble wrap for the rest of their lives,” the vice chair added, “but I think in reality I can see a path forward that I couldn’t see as clearly before.”

Are precaution-heavy blue states capable of … chilling out about COVID?

One school dares to think the unthinkable.

According to the survey, 70 percent of students said the mask-optional policy improved their school experience, while just 8 percent said it worsened it. Ianelli said that students reported better class discussions and easier group work without universal masking, as well as “contagious smiling.”

“It was just overall happier hallways and a more recognizable high school experience,” Ianelli said, adding that she “definitely felt that experience myself as well.”

Students also reported more ease learning different languages, whether in foreign languages classes or for English as a second language learners. It also solved issues with students reporting headaches from wearing masks all day, as well as glasses or goggles fogging up — not to mention gym class…

Most teachers and school staff also said it was easier to communicate and connect with students, according to a separate survey presented by Hopkinton School District Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh.

Some students and staff who stayed masked at the beginning of the three-week trial gradually found their courage and took off their masks once they saw no ill effects among the unmasked kids around them. Just as there was a “wait and see” group with the vaccines who were willing to get the jab but only after they saw firsthand that there was no risk, the same was true of masks at Hopkinton High. All it takes to lower the anxiety across the population in an environment of caution is for a few early adapters to show some courage.

Which is pathetically ridiculous given how low the stakes were in this case. There’s hardly anyone in America who’s safer from COVID than a fully vaccinated teenager, masked or unmasked. But so ubiquitous is the norm in liberal areas of taking maximum precautions that it must have been nerve-wracking for some kids to socialize in proximity to others without a facial security blanket.

Surely the school will make its mask-free policy permanent now, right? Well, no. Masks will return in January, after winter break, and could return sooner if the school board orders it depending upon local conditions. Which I’m guessing they will once they hear about this:

Massachusetts is currently seeing the highest number of cases it’s had since January and the highest number of hospitalizations since February. Mercifully, deaths are still far off their peak from last winter, probably due to the high rate of vaccination statewide. But if there was any doubt about Hopkinton reinstating its mask mandate amid the current conditions, presumably the emergence of Omicron will eliminate it. A school that was masking universally despite a 98 percent vaccination rate isn’t going to take chances with a new variant unless and until scientists are very sure that it’s less threatening than Delta. And maybe not even then depending upon how ultra-transmissible it is.

Speaking of Omicron, I’m guessing this new study on masks will get some media play this week amid reports of the variant spreading wildly in South Africa. Risk-averse people will be scrambling for ways to reduce their exposure to a variant that may well be more immune-evasive than any strain that preceded it. Will masks help? Probably, according to the authors of the study, although much depends on what type of mask you wear.

An FFP2 mask is the European analogue of an N95. Surgical masks work too but to a much lesser degree, the study found, because they don’t fit a person’s face tightly; particles tend to “leak” in and out around the edges of that mask. By comparison, an N95 that fits tightly, with the nosepiece also adjusted for a tight fit, can cut transmission drastically:

The fitted FFP2 masks studied here (and, most likely, other vertically folded FFP2 masks of similar design), when properly fitted to infectious and susceptible faces, can reduce the risk of infection by a factor of 30 compared with loosely worn masks and by a factor of 75 compared with fitted surgical masks for an exposure duration of 20 min. Our results also suggest that the use of FFP2 masks should be preferred to surgical masks, as even loosely worn FFP2 masks can reduce the risk of infection by a factor of 2.5 compared with well-fitted surgical masks.

The data in graph form:

It’s amazing but true that we’re 21 months into the pandemic and approaching our second winter wave and yet there’s never been a strong push by the White House or public health bureaucrats to convince people to wear higher quality masks. Even Biden and Harris tend to wear standard cloth masks in public. N95s are expensive and can’t be worn every day but you’d think there at least be an effort to convince Americans to opt for surgical masks and to do what they can to make them fit tightly. Just another government failure during the COVID era alongside the dearth of rapid tests.

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