Unintended Consequences

Guidelines regarding mask wearing in physical education classes can become unintentionally dangerous.


photo by Kristen Kinzler

Mask breaks during gym class can be problematic if students do not properly socially distance.

Kristen Kinzler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Whether we like it or not, masks have become an inevitable part of our daily lives. They’re encouraged by scientists, required to go into any store or public place, and key to keeping this school year under control.

In order to conduct the hybrid learning model, North Allegheny sensibly implemented a strict mask policy. In general, it seems to be working very well. I’ve barely even seen a mask beneath anyone’s nose. Certain parts of the day, however, have proven to be challenging.

The NASH administration has focused much of its efforts on making sure that students are wearing masks in the parking lot before and after school and that proper social distancing takes place in the cafeteria. While these are both valid concerns that should be receiving the school’s attention, that same vigilance is lacking in another aspect—gym classes.

Many physical education classes are appreciating the nice weather and getting students outside. Since the lockers rooms are closed and students are wearing their everyday clothes, the activities are pretty mild. When the students are outside doing non-strenuous activities, like going on walks or playing golf, they’re typically told they can take their masks off if they spread out.

It seems harmless in theory. North Allegheny allows elementary school students to take off their masks during recess, and Governor Wolf has approved a ten-minute mask break throughout the school day. So, I assume that the Physical Education Department has permission to allow students to take their masks off under certain conditions and that the best time for this break is when students are outdoors for gym. Regardless, when not conducted carefully, these guidelines can quickly become dangerous.

For example, the students go outside, spread out, and remove their masks. As soon as the masks come off, students congregate. They have no malicious intent or desire to spread COVID-19; it’s just natural. And suddenly, it looks like the parking lot after school—maskless students standing in circles, not even close to six feet apart. The only difference is that, in gym class, it is an activity apparently endorsed by the teachers.

If we can ever hope for the hybrid model to be even moderately successful, our school district needs to be clear and consistent with mask guidelines.”

The mask break usually lasts longer than ten minutes, sometimes the entire class period if the class is outdoors. And because it feels so natural to get close to each other when speaking or instructing, oftentimes teachers who take their masks off accidentally come within six feet of their students and set an unintentional example. If students see teachers with their masks off walking around, they don’t have any reason to think twice about their own precautions.

To be fair, COVID-19 spreads significantly less effectively outdoors than it does indoors. And all the gym teachers I’ve seen have made it clear that students do not need to remove their masks if they are not comfortable doing so. However, wearing a mask mostly prevents a person from spreading the virus to those around them, so one individual keeping on their mask around a group of unmasked classmates is not nearly as safe as they might think.

The lack of principle, at least from a concerned student’s perspective, is frustrating. If we can ever hope for the hybrid model to be even moderately successful, our school district needs to be clear and consistent with mask guidelines. And right now, it feels like they are blaming teenagers for being kids—for getting closer to hear each other at lunch or taking their mask off in the parking lot among friends they are already spending time with anyway—while allowing gym classes to get away with the same thing.

When the school makes exceptions or doesn’t acknowledge an issue, it weakens the whole argument for universal mask wearing.

And while it may be hard to wear a mask all day, there are certain things that take priority over minor discomfort. I want to feel safe. I want to keep coming to school. I want my senior year to be as normal as possible. It would be extremely disappointing if, just because of some mask breaks during an extremely casual gym class, a minor outbreak became uncontrollable—especially when so many teachers and students are trying their hardest and making sacrifices to slow the spread of the virus. 

I know these guidelines were created with good intentions and that the administration and gym teachers want to keep us all as safe as possible. However, intentions aside, removing masks for any period of time except when eating or when it’s unavoidably necessary is reckless. 

It’s okay to acknowledge that, because it’s okay to admit that we don’t have this system perfected yet—as long as we are always actively working on it. Addressing the masking policy in physical education classes is just the next step in working towards making the hybrid model the best it can be.