Or die waiting for a narrative to save you.
The COVID Fight Ahead
The masks are off in NYC—but for how long?
March 7, 2022 was a big day in New York City. For the first time in nearly two years, children five and older who attended public schools were allowed to come to school without a mask. Though the narrative in NYC around COVID restrictions for children was still one of fear, there were many parents who had fought desperately—in a variety of ways—for a return to normalcy for their children.
The end of the K-12 school mask mandate in NYC ushers in a new phase for these moms and dads: one of hope, yes, but uncertainty too. Is the fight to restore sanity over? Have the good guys won? Or have unnecessary COVID mandates and draconian school procedures become codified into the system? Must fighting, for these families, become the new normal?
Initially, in NYC, masks became optional for public school students in grades K-12. Currently, children under five remain masked at school, although that is expected to change in the coming weeks. But the door remains open for mandates to be reinstated if COVID numbers rise significantly. For parents who had been desperately campaigning to end school masking, it feels more like a stay than a reprieve.
Anastasia Martin is the mother of a three-year-old who was attending a city-funded “3-K” in Queens. When she found out that her child would still have to mask because he was under 5, she said she felt like she’d been “punched in the gut.” She picked her son up from school and never went back. “My plan is to send my children to private school,” says Martin, “but if private schools also go back to masking then I will homeschool.”
She may have to. Amy (not her real name) says that the kids in her son’s Upper West Side private school are still masked. “During snack and lunch, when they are unmasked, the kids must face forward,” Amy says. “A screen is turned on and they are not allowed to speak until they are done eating and they put their masks back on.” Amy says the school is considering unmasking children after spring break, but even then it will only apply to children who are vaccinated.
Eloise (not her real name) is a mother of two preparing to move to New York City from England with her family. She has been anxiously hoping the school mask mandate would lift before they arrive. When she learned that Mayor Adams had made masks optional in public schools she was “massively relieved.” But, she says, “I do worry that the CDC has left a lot of wiggle room in its recently revised masking recommendations for some areas to re-implement school masking.”
Natalya Murakhver, a Manhattan mother of two, was “partially relieved” when the K-12 mandate lifted but, she says, “I didn’t feel like we had gotten there yet” because the mask mandate wasn’t removed, it was suspended. “When you suspend someone,” she says, “they come back to school.”
The prospect of mask mandates returning is daunting for these parents. Two years of fighting against the prevailing narrative has taken its toll. For parents who’ve believed all along that placing COVID restrictions on children was wrong, social distancing was not the pandemic’s only source of isolation.
Isabel (not her real name) says that where she lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, “masking seems almost like a religion.” She says she learned early on that talking to her mom friends about her beliefs came at a social cost.
“They would tell me that this is a selfish and dangerous point of view,” Isabel explains. “That we all need to protect one another and that ‘masks save lives.’” Isabel worries that publicly sharing her views on school masking—even now that the DOE mandate is lifted—would “have some sort of repercussions on my daughter at school.”
“Nobody my husband and I know shares our opinions on this,” Amy says. “I have definitely lost friends. And I have consistently butted heads with my child’s school.” She worries that speaking publicly about her views would essentially constitute a violation of the school’s community guidelines. “Speaking out about this particular issue is seen as a threat to the community,” she says. “It is an outsider view.”
Rebecca Frymer, who lives in Manhattan, got a medical mask exemption for her six-year-old last summer when she felt he couldn’t breathe in his mask. Frymer says that taking this stand for her son has been “very isolating.” She says she “didn’t understand how controversial it was. People said ‘I can’t be friends with you anymore because you’re putting kids at risk.’”
Frymer says speaking publicly about her beliefs is frightening. “Will this come up on a Google search? Will it affect my job?” she wonders. “We have cancel culture where people will just attack. There’s less and less seeking to understand. I’m trying to counter that. But it’s scary because people’s careers are ruined.”
This experience has left many of these parents forever changed. Dan Kurfirst, whose daughter attends Kindergarten at a public school in Brooklyn, says his worldview has shifted entirely during the pandemic. A lifelong Democrat, Kurfirst says, “My whole life I thought I was born on the right side of history and what if I wasn’t?” He goes on, “I think there’s a political realignment going on. I think people are seeking something in between.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many parents who’ve been fighting for normalcy for their children. “I have zero faith that politicians on either side care about the well-being of our children,” says Martin.
Amy says, “I consider myself a liberal, progressive person. Now that every single person I know has completely disregarded all these values in the name of COVID, I can no longer identify with anyone who calls themselves that title. I don’t believe my values have changed, but clearly whatever I thought that title meant was wrong.”
“It’s hard to support the Democrats after their treatment of children and their politicization of public health,” says Murakhver. “I’m a registered Democrat, but I’m ashamed of my party.”
“I think the whole party system is broken,” says Frymer. “We’re stuck in this system where you have to choose a party instead of choose an issue.” It’s a daunting prospect: Must we dismantle our entire political system just so our children can see each other smile?
These are parents who know how to fight for the childhood they believe their children deserve. They’ve been doing it, now, for almost two years.
Murakhver, for example, organized the Urgency of Normal campaign, and Cheryl (not her real name), a Brooklyn mom of two, has formed a coalition of lawyers around the country with “the end goal of filing a nation-wide masking case to attack masks on a constitutional basis on the federal level.”
Initiatives like these—and countless rallies, protests, and letter-writing campaigns—worked. The masks came off. But the feeling now is one of frustration as parents stare down the prospect of living in perpetual limbo. “I’m exhausted,” says Isabel. “I’m tired of being on the edge of my seat wondering what will be mandated next.”
“I’m tired of attending rallies,” says Frymer. “It’s important so I do it but I’m tired of all the letter-writing and all the protests for something that’s so simple.” The question has become: what will it take to end these mandates for good?
“I think the only way this goes away is if we crush the narrative that masks work,” says Cheryl. Murakhver says the state of emergency needs to be removed. Isabel says “laws would need to be put in place to make it illegal to require masking” and policymakers would “have to admit that they were wrong.” But all this means more pushback, more standing up for a viewpoint that is still socially risky, without a clear end in sight.
The future is uncertain. And, for many of these parents, there are still many choices ahead as they seek to give their kids a normal childhood. “Move to Florida? Move to Texas?” Kurfirst wonders. “But nothing gives a guarantee. It could flip blue in two years. It’s a terrible decision to have to make.”
“I keep saying I’m going to move,” says Cheryl, “and then I keep thinking, well, where am I going to go? This is my home.” But for Murakhver, one thing is clear: “We will never mask our children again.”
Not Giving Up
It’s been two long years and the fight is far from over. There is anger and grief for the time lost. But, for these parents, there is also an unwavering belief that COVID policies that unnecessarily limit children’s lives cannot stand.
“My son is not responsible for protecting others from catching COVID,” says Martin. “He is a child and he needs to breathe freely and to see other faces to learn how to speak properly and to socialize.”
“This,” says Kurfirst, gesturing to his mouth and nose, “is kind of an important part of life, it’s where you breathe, it’s how you communicate.” These parents can’t just drop this fight because they’re tired of fighting.
“Children aren’t supposed to be protecting adults,” says Isabel. It’s the other way around.