Post-Pandemic Life

Teens Are Staying Masked, Not Just For Health, And I Get It

My son hasn’t shown his full face in school for two years. I’m not surprised that he and most of his high school classmates are keeping masks on.

Teens want to keep masks on, even if there's no longer a mask mandate.
Boy_Anupong/Moment/Getty Images

The last time my son attended high school in pre-pandemic times, he was a shiny freshman, probably four inches shorter and a lot more smooth-skinned.

He’s been back full-time since last September, but mask mandates only just lifted for his high school, one of the largest in the country with some 6,000 students. I was over the moon when I sent him off for the first maskless Monday, chirping about what a milestone it was and crowing about how great it would be to see each teacher’s face. Joe took his mask, though, “Just in case.”

When he came home and I asked how it went, I got the usual shrug. “Did everyone have their mask off?” I asked. “About 80 percent kept them on,” he mumbled. I made him repeat that, thinking at first that he must have meant 80 percent had it off. “Did you keep yours on?” I pressed. “Yeah,” he admitted.

OMG. Teens, as recently reported by The New York Times, are reluctant to take off their masks.

I should back up to say that the weekend before the mandate lifted, Joe asked to get a haircut (it grew, untamed, the whole of the past two years, and I let it go) and he asked where my husband keeps his razors, so he could go ahead and shave. I took these preparations to mean that he was excited to unveil himself. I probably should have seen it as a manifestation of teen anxiety.

One of my high-school friends teaches at Joe’s school so I texted him. “Joe says everyone is wearing masks anyway,” I wrote. He confirmed it. “I was all ready to not wear mine but then I saw so many kids and teachers wearing theirs that I felt bad. I was disappointed.”

My son says that a reason kids are giving to stay masked is, “Let’s see how the numbers go,” meaning the COVID rates in our city. But I think that’s kind of BS. These teens are old enough to be vaxxed and boosted, and the CDC bets that more than half of kids have already had COVID. Granted, I generally support a “better safe than sorry” approach. But teens are not known for being the most safety-conscious population.

Showing your face has always been nerve-wracking for teens. Imagine if no one had seen you for two years and suddenly you were supposed to go public? Heck, adults even appreciate the anonymity of a mask. My coworkers admit they’re happy to mask up before shopping because it means they don’t have to put on makeup.

So like with so many things, I am staying quiet and not pressuring my kid either way. I suspect he’s not wearing the mask for health reasons or to make a statement about safety. This is a guy who pulls his hoodie over his head and sits in the classic teen hunch. He doesn’t want people to look at him, especially without a mask, reminding me yet again how tough it is to be a teen. It’s enough that he likes going to school. I’ll take that as a win and assume that, eventually, people will see his sweet face again.