Poly Goes Mask Optional

Note: Due to recent events, this story is now out-of-date. Please read the Polygon’s most updated coverage here.

Director of Health and Well-being Sarah Zuercher announced on Wednesday that the schoolwide mask requirement will be lifted on Monday and will be replaced by a mask optional policy. The change in policy applies to both the Dyker Heights and Lower School campuses. 

The decision to lift the requirement was made in consultation with the Health and Safety team, Zuercher, and Head of School Audrius Barzdukas. 

The decision comes as New York State drops its statewide indoor mask mandate following the surge of Omicron this winter. In an interview on Wednesday, Zuercher explained the rationale behind lifting the mandate. “We’ve seen a very sharp decline in COVID cases here at school and in the community,” said Zuercher. “As we look at the layers of our COVID safety strategy, we don’t need to keep all the layers as we always have as cases go down. While [masking] can be very effective, with Omicron being highly contagious, we think it’s one of the less effective mitigation strategies when you look at everything we’re doing—testing, vaccination, boosters, [and] air filtration.” Zuercher also attributes the swift change in policy to how fast Omicron went up and how fast it went down. 

Zuercher further explained how the risks of wearing masks might actually outweigh the benefits. “There’s research that’s coming out for kids that the masks might inhibit language acquisition, social and emotional development, [and] their ability to read facial cues,” said Zuercher. 

New York and Governor Kathy Hochul have yet to ease mask rules for public schools. New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut have all rolled back mask mandates in schools in recent days. As far as he is aware, Barzdukas said, “We are going to be the first [school in New York City to lift a mask requirement].”

In an interview with the Polygon on Wednesday morning, Barzdukas said that Poly’s Health and Safety team, who made the decision, is “a team of physicians, researchers, clinicians— the team who has advised us throughout COVID.”

“Decisions are always made in collaboration with the experts and the Head of School,” added Dean of Academic Affairs Michal Hershkovitz. “I trust that Ms. Zuercher and Mr. Barzdukas are doing their due diligence, getting in touch with the experts, learning from health department professionals, and making the decisions that are best for the community. They’re not following a pack.” 

This is the first time the Poly community won’t be required to mask indoors since March 2020. With the change, Zuercher understands the fear and discomfort that might come about. “For people who are concerned about not wearing a mask, wearing a well-fitting N95 mask, even if everyone around you isn’t wearing a mask, is still a really good protective measure,” said Zuercher. Every Poly student aged 5 plus is vaccinated and aged 16 plus have to be boosted. Poly’s weekly testing program will remain in place to closely monitor school case trends. “The risk is increased in school transmission and that’s why we are going to be really carefully paying attention to cases, to symptom reporting on RUVNA, to figure out if that’s happening,” said Zuercher.  

Hershkovitz hopes the community can remain universally understanding. “What I would like for this community, always, but especially now, is not to be judgmental of other people…I hope that we have developed the grace that we all need from one another so that if tomorrow I feel secure enough to drop the mask, great. But if I don’t, it really shouldn’t concern anybody else, and I really really hope that each of us can do what’s best for us and our family’s and our own comfort level,” said Hershkovitz.  

Zuercher hopes the community will be able to adjust to the change. “Like every COVID safety decision we’ve made, there are going to be some people who are really happy and some people who are really unhappy,” said Zuercher. “We try to look at the evidence and the science and make the best decision that we can to balance COVID safety with overall mental health, emotional, and social well-being. If we realize this was a big mistake, then we will go back to masking.” 

For the next couple of days, until Monday, Poly expects people to mask up. Zuercher explained that if on Sunday Poly positive cases suddenly spike, the enforcement policy could change.