“COVID’s over, dude!”
That was one of the comments aimed at a masked student in the hallway when the new school year began at a New Hampshire high school where masks are now optional.
Giving students the choice of whether to wear a mask to protect against COVID-19 this school year has raised concerns among some parents and school leaders that it will lead to teasing in the classroom.
The father of a student who attends St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover already has heard about some of the remarks being made to his masked teenager at the school, which isn’t requiring masks this year.
“My kid has had to weather some comments. With one kid in the hall it was, ‘COVID’s over, dude!’ Other comments were from close classmates saying things like, ‘You’re vaccinated, why are you wearing a mask?’ or ‘Your parents won’t know if you take it off,’” said the father, who asked not to be identified for fear his child could be targeted.
“It wears on my kid. We’ve talked about that social pressure at least three or four times in the few weeks that school has been in session,” he said.
Before the new school year began with optional masking, administrators at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston sent a note to students making their expectations clear.
“As with most current topics, there are varying opinions and feelings on mask-wearing. Regardless of personal feelings and choices, we want to be clear that negative behavior, including put downs or shaming of any kind around a person’s choice to wear or not wear a mask, will not be tolerated at SRHS,” the administration wrote.
Students are being encouraged to report any incidents in which they were made to feel “uncomfortable” about their choice.
Sanborn Principal Brian Stack estimates that about 10% of students are wearing masks.
He said Thursday that so far his office has not received any complaints about students mistreating each other based on their mask-use choice.
“Actually, I am very impressed with the way our students have handled themselves with this situation,” he said.
The state Department of Health and Human Services recommends universal mask-wearing in schools in areas where COVID-19 transmission is substantial — which has for weeks included the entire state.
Still, masks are optional in many places, including School Administrative Unit 15, which serves Auburn, Candia and Hooksett.
“Our principals have reminded … students and staff that bullying of any kind will not be tolerated, including students who may be wearing a mask. To date, this has not been an issue in any of our schools,” Superintendent Bill Rearick said.
While masks have been optional in Bedford, Marc Murai has a 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter who have been wearing them since the school year began.
The Bedford father has been a proponent of mask-wearing in school and wondered whether students would be shamed if they chose to wear one in a mask-optional district.
“The thought did cross my mind, but since my daughter hasn’t reported to us that she’s been bullied or anything, it hasn’t been a large concern. Hopefully that’s not happening too much,” he said.
Given the heated debates over mask policies at school meetings in New Hampshire and across the country, Murai said he can “see how it could happen after seeing the parents at these school board meetings basically being bullies.”
He claims he was even threatened in the parking lot after a Bedford School Board meeting for being “pro-mask.”
According to David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire sociology professor who has studied bullying for years, the masked versus non-masked issue could create some conflicts in schools.
“It’s something that I hope the school authorities will address, anticipating differences of opinion and what should be respected and that kind of thing,” he said.
But he cautioned against using the “bullying” label if a snide comment is made.
“Bullying doesn’t mean any negative remark or any conflict that breaks out between students. Bullying is a repeated oppression and victimization of someone by someone who is more powerful or a group of people who are more powerful,” said Finkelhor, who is also director of the UNH Crimes against Children Research Center and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory.