Today, the masks come off.
Since August 2020, Westport schools have been under a mask mandate. For 18 months, everyone — students, staff, custodians, cafeteria workers, the few visitors allowed in — has spent every minute inside with half their face covered.
Seniors in high school, kindergarteners, principals — it did not matter how old or young you were. If you were in school, you wore a mask.
Students watching lessons at home via Zoom saw their teachers covered (and heard their voices muffled). Chorus members sang and actors acted with masks. Indoor athletes practiced and played with masks (though this winter, they were generally worn around the neck).
Today, teachers will see this year’s students’ faces for the first time. And vice versa.
It will be different. Odd. For some it will be liberating. For others, scary.
It’s a major step on the road back to normalcy — or at least, to the Before Times. It’s a significant indicator that although COVID is still with us, we’re now figuring out how to live with it, rather than be ruled by it.
We’ve come a long way from just 6 weeks ago, when Omicron stunned us with its sudden surge. Just as the experts predicted though, it ebbed as quickly as it flowed.
A new variant no doubt awaits. It may be more or less transmissible than others. It may target a different population. It may affect people in different ways, or be a more or less lethal version of what we’ve seen.
We may go back to masks, temporarily. Some people will continue to wear them, everywhere or in certain places. But I can’t imagine we’ll go back to another 18 months of masks in schools.
Just as we won’t go back to washing our hands like OCD sufferers, for 2 “Happy Birthday” stanzas at a time. Nor will we once again quarantine our food outdoors for 48 hours, after wiping down every piece of fruit, carton of milk and box of cereal.
Still, we’ll take some lessons from the 18 months of masks. We’ve learned that they prevent more than COVID. It’s been a long time since I’ve had even a cold, and this flu season has been a breeze. The next time something is “going around,” we’ll see masks again — and no one will think twice about them.
Another lesson: We can do this. If you had told me in March of 2020 that 2 years later we’d still be battling COVID — and that, despite a vaccine developed in record time, huge swaths of Americans refused to take it — I’d have said, “No way can we hang in that long.”
But hang in we did. We had to. The coronavirus hung around too. We had no choice.
So now we look ahead. Restaurants are filling back up. The newcomers who flooded into Westport over the past 2 years — families that loved discovering their new community, even during a lockdown — are starting to see just how great this place really is.
The biggest party in town — the 4th of July fireworks — is back on. (Actually, they’re June 30th. That’s just 4 days fewer to wait.)
But back to the start of this story: the kids.
There may be collateral damage from the past 18 months. The youngest children — those who have never known a mask-free school — may carry this with them forever.
I think about everyone who grew up in the Depression. For the rest of their lives — no matter how well-off and secure they were — they ate everything on their plate. And they turned off every light when they left a room, to “save the electric.”
But I also know that kids are resilient. They’re adaptable. They’re flexible.
And they’ve complained far less about masks than adults.
There may be some strange moments today, when the masks come off in school. Soon enough though, it will be back to normal.
Or whatever passes for the New Normal these days.