The Day Poly Went Mask Optional: How Did We Get Here? A look back at COVID at Poly

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Where did COVID-19 originate?

Community Updates: In the Poly Community, the rapidly worsening issue of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 was discussed in a March 5th email from Former Assistant Head of School Hung Bui that detailed Poly’s early covid precautions, including asking community members who had been to a Level 2 or Level 3 country over spring break to self-quarantine. As Bui wrote, at the time, “The Centers for Disease Control specifically states ‘that schools are not expected to screen students or staff to identify cases of COVID-19. The majority of respiratory illnesses are not COVID-19.’”

The origins and effects of Covid-19 were unknown, and the prospective significance of the pandemic’s impact was not yet clear. Nevertheless, the language of the email exhibits an underlying sense of concern, and a simultaneous commitment to togetherness in the beginning of an unprecedented time for our school and our world. Bui wrote, “I have unwavering confidence in our community to navigate through the days and weeks ahead.”

National Context: Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China. However, the original source of the virus still hasn’t been determined. Many of the early infectees were workers at the Huanan Seafood Market so, it has been suggested that the virus might have originated from the market. However, other research indicates that visitors may have introduced the virus to the market, which then facilitated the virus.

When was the first case of COVID-19 in the U.S.? In NYC?

Community Updates: When the issue of the Covid-19 pandemic was first discussed broadly among members of the Poly community in Bui’s March email, there were 22 confirmed cases of the infection in New York, which feels miniscule now, but at the time was grounds for widespread concern.

National Context: The first U.S. laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 was on January 18 in Washington state. The infected man was in his 30s and a resident of Snohomish County, Washington. He developed symptoms after returning from a trip to the region around Wuhan where the outbreak began. On March 1, 2020, it was confirmed that a 39-year-old-woman in Manhattan contracted the virus while traveling in Iran.

When did the stay-at-home order start? What did virtual school look like at first?

On the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before Spring Break, Poly students were at home for COVID-19 precautions and to test out Virtual Poly. Ironically, the week before, Upper School students were stuffed into chapel for an assembly discussing the potential for Poly to go virtual. As Head of School Audrius Barzdukas put it in an email on March 9, 2020, according to the Polygon, “Let’s run [Virtual Poly] while we’re still here so that we can have two weeks for the geniuses [Charles Polizano and the Technology Department]…to fix it. If we have to do it when we come back, we’re fully ready to go.”

Despite consistent hope to return to school at some point, Poly was virtual for the whole rest of the school year. Students attended classes through Zoom and Google Meet. An updated grading policy established that students’ grades could not drop below what they had before Virtual Poly, but could still improve.

NYC Context: Governor Andrew Cuomo’s original plan: All public schools would close the week of March 16. Remote learning would begin on March 23, and last until at least April 20. Programs would be implemented to provide access to childcare and meals.

When did NYC and Poly students return to in-person school? What did that look like?

At the end of the 2019-20 school year, Poly students, teachers, and faculty did not know what school might look like in the fall, according to the Polygon.

Community Updates: The return of Poly students to in-person school came after what felt like an eternal spring—stuck inside and learning through the computer screen, with little knowledge of what the future might hold. Having fought through the difficult circumstances of Virtual Poly, the community was prepared to conquer a new learning environment. Poly had announced their intention to begin school in the fall on the backfields, where they had erected a sprawl of tents, and bought camping chairs for students to lug from class to class. While these conditions were not ideal, in the grand scheme of things, many thought that any form of in-person school was most certainly an upgrade. Specifically, Barzdukas put into perspective the growing joy among community members to be together again. In an email on the first day of Poly’s 2020-2021 school year, Barzdukas wrote, “students engaged in their classwork, recounted summer adventures, played, and made plans for future socially distant social engagements. They were kids being kids, and it all was such a gift to behold.”

When did mask mandates first begin to change? To double masking? To no masks outdoors?

Community Updates: Poly’s position on mask wearing has been clear ever since the return to in-person school. Students have been expected to wear a mask that covers both their nose and mouth for the entirety of their time in school, save for whilst eating or drinking. This policy didn’t change for over a year, and was consciously. enforced by faculty members. However, especially in the first part of the current 2021-2022 school year, the commitment to mask wearing had waned among students, and many had become lackadaisical towards keeping their mask up, or wearing one at all. This reality was clear to faculty, as is evident by the following excerpt from an email sent by Director of Health and Well-being Sarah Zuercher in late December 2021: “ We MUST BE MORE VIGILANT about mask-wearing. The relaxed approach that some Dyker Heights community members had begun implementing towards mask-wearing will not be tolerated. Families can expect to come to campus and pick up students who:                             Do not arrive at school wearing a properly fitting mask.                                                                                                                                         Do not wear their masks appropriately at all times indoors, except while eating/drinking.                                                                           Do not have multiple masks in their backpacks.”

This particular policy of sending kids home for violating the mask policy received significant push back and didn’t last very long. According to the Polygon, “Poly quietly curtailed the practice of sending kids home, first informing faculty on Thursday and notifying students a day later.” Zuercher’s reasoning behind this change, as shared in an email to employees obtained by the Polygon, was that “Cases at school and in NYC are declining. Students are wearing their masks much more consistently. We have not seen evidence of major in-school transmission. Therefore, we will quietly end our practice of sending students home if they are not masked properly.”

When did mask mandates begin to be completely lifted?

State Context: Statewide mask requirements in schools were lifted on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. The announcement came on February 27.

Community Updates: Poly’s path towards lifting the mask mandate had many twists and turns. On February 9, Poly announced their intention to drop the mask mandate, effectively immediately, for all students and staff. Opinions about this decision were mixed, and because Poly was the first NYC school to announce such a decision, many felt as though the issue was being rushed.

Just a few days after the announcement had been made, Zuercher sent an email notifying the community that she had “received clarity today from the NY State Department of Health and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that such a measure [was] not permissible under current state- and city-wide restrictions.” Finally, on February 28, with state- and city-approval, Zuercher announced in an email that Poly would be mask optional beginning Wednesday, March 2.