The School That Couldn’t Quit Covid

A school in upstate New York imposed some of the most extreme measures during the pandemic—including silent lunches and outdoor masking. The rules are still in effect.

The Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca, set amid a pastoral idyll of rolling fields, a pond, and dandelion-stippled meadows, is just a few minutes’ ride from Ithaca College and Cornell University. Serving more than 220 students from preschool through eighth grade, the school features classrooms bathed in natural light, populated with the offspring of professors, doctors, and lawyers. And since the fall of 2020 through today, those children must be masked during class and on the playground, and have been barred from speaking during lunch.

Like every other school in the country, this private school—which charges between $11,000 to $18,000 a year, depending on the student’s age—closed to in-person classes in the spring of 2020. That fall, around the time the local public schools brought kids back, so did EACMSI, but with a list of mitigations. Some were typical and required by the state, such as distancing and indoor masking. But others, at least after a while, were less common or not recommended by health authorities—specifically, outdoor masking and a ban on speaking during lunch.

Parents like Dr. Beth Stein, a physician and mother of two students, accepted the rules. She was grateful for her kids to be at school in person, knowing that plenty of children elsewhere in the country were stuck at home learning remotely. But by the fall of 2021, the continuation of the harsh restrictions worried her. 

“I could tolerate most of the stuff—the teachers in N95s and face shields while standing behind plexiglass barriers, the 12 feet of distance for band members, the ban on singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in class. But I just wanted them to end the outdoor masking,” Stein, who is board-certified in public health and preventive medicine, said. Because of her complaints, she said her kids almost got kicked out. After she begged, Stein said, the school let them stay. But at the beginning of this school year, with no end to the interventions in sight, Stein finally pulled her kids from EACMSI. They now attend public school. 

As of today, children at EACMSI are still required to mask indoors and outdoors. They are still prohibited from speaking during lunch. Second-graders who began school there as kindergarteners in fall 2020 have never experienced a normal day of school in their lives. 

In addition to Stein and her children, I spoke with several parents of current students who are unhappy with the rules. “I see the current situation as ridiculous,” one parent told me. But for fear of angering the administrators of a school they otherwise love, they agreed to talk with me only on the condition that they and their children remain anonymous.

This is the story of why EACMSI is among the last schools in America to still enforce such draconian measures. It is also the story of how, when faced with a crisis, many public health authorities—along with regular people and bureaucrats following the authorities’ lead—believed that the more extreme the response to the virus, the more wise and virtuous the policy. 

The rationale behind this approach was understandable during the early weeks of the pandemic. But even as evidence quickly accrued that children were at little risk of severe outcomes from Covid; that teachers were not at greater risk than other professionals; and that these in-school interventions would lead to many secondary harms to kids—from delayed language acquisition to damaged socialization—a culture of fear ruled. 

Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori is founded on a “child-centered” philosophy that “serves the development of the whole child.” It is hard to square that principle with the school’s enforcement of practices that, especially now, are unlikely to confer any benefit and that clearly diminish a child’s experience. This situation has been allowed to continue because many parents have absorbed the lesson that it isn’t worth it to challenge authority on behalf of their silenced children.

A post shared by EACMSI (@eacmsi_)

Over the course of the pandemic, more than 50 million American children were locked out of their schools. When they finally returned to the classroom, millions of them—largely depending on the state or county where they lived—were required to spend the day in masks. Many of them even had to wear masks outdoors, a practice that the CDC allowed to lapse in late spring 2021, in the wake of withering criticism over its proposed summer camp guidelines

By now, nearly every school in the country has rescinded its indoor mask mandate, let alone one for outdoors. Yet EACMSI remains one of the last holdouts. 

Why would EACMSI continue to practice anti-Covid measures—for which there are no proven benefits—and that were extreme even in the midst of the pandemic’s height? I reached out to Dawn Grover, the head of school, and Liz Allen, the dean of students, for comment. “Masking has been extremely effective in protecting our students and staff while they are on campus,” came the reply from a generic administrative email account. “We have seen no on-campus transmission during our nearly three years of in-person school operations since we reopened in fall of 2020.” 

I discussed this claim with two infectious diseases doctors and was told that without extensive contact tracing and testing with genomic sequencing, there is simply no way the school administrators could know this with any certainty. I asked the administration for more detail but did not get a response. According to the parents I spoke with, the student body at EACMSI seems to have had the same incidence of Covid as kids at other schools.

I was also told that, after the state mask mandate was rescinded, several teachers said they wouldn’t continue teaching if the school policy changed. The school said that the administration “felt fortunate that we could continue masking this year to support the requests of many of our teachers and families. Surrounding schools that did not have this choice have seen significant staffing changes and shortages where we have not.” 

I asked for evidence that staffing changes at other schools were related to pandemic policies, but did not get a response. I also asked if they could provide numbers or percentages for how many families requested masking to continue, but that query went unanswered as well.

There were many unnecessary burdens imposed on children during the pandemic. But the silent lunch—a requirement that children not speak during mealtime—has long exemplified, to me, the peak of cruelty and stupidity of child-centered Covid interventions. (It so embedded itself in my psyche that I made it the namesake of my Substack.) The policy, which many found appalling, was for too long fairly prevalent. I was astonished to find out that in April 2023 a school still enforces it. 

The prohibition against lunchtime speaking varied depending on the teacher, according to Stein’s two children, and the parents of current students. (The school has no cafeteria, so lunch is eaten in classrooms.) Stein’s 13-year-old daughter said that, last year, her seventh-grade teacher often played movies like Elf and Coraline while the students ate. But, she said, there were also plenty of days where they simply ate in silence. If the students had to ask the teacher a question, she told me, they had to first don their masks, and then take them off again to continue eating. (The school administration confirmed that during lunch, if a student needs to speak to a teacher, they must first replace their mask.) 

Parents of current students told me that teachers have shown TED Talks or instructional videos, or played podcasts to keep the students sufficiently entertained so they won’t be tempted to speak to each other. Teachers also conduct lessons or read a story during lunch. When the kids eat outdoors, they are permitted to talk.

Other teachers are stricter. Stein’s younger child, now 10, described the bizarre—and sad—scene during her time at EACMSI before she left for public school this fall. Last school year, in fourth grade, some kids had grown so forlorn and desperate during silent lunch that they made up their own sign language so they could communicate with each other, she told me. 

“We just really wanted to talk,” she said. They contrived unique hand signals to mean different words. Twisting your arms together meant “What?”

A post shared by EACMSI (@eacmsi_)

In January of this year, the school held a concert, its first indoor in-person event with parents in years. The student musicians were masked, including those who played wind instruments. A parent of a current student, whose daughter participated in the concert, described to me how she looked online for how to create a mask that would work in such a scenario. She crafted a cloth mask, cutting and sewing a special slit for her child to blow through the center of the material into the instrument. 

During a parade in spring 2022, the band members were all masked. This meant the wind instrument players wore masks with openings in the center so they could blow into their flutes and trumpets and clarinets. Stein told me she felt embarrassed as the children marched by hordes of unmasked townspeople lining the streets.

What’s particularly odd is that the seventh- and eighth-graders recently took an overnight trip to New York City, where masks were optional, and talking during meals was allowed, according to a parent of a current eighth-grader. Yet when they returned to school, the indoor and outdoor mask mandate and silent lunch were still in effect. 

I asked several parents why they haven’t said something to the administration about the masking and lunchtime speaking prohibition. Both told me that the administration gave the distinct impression that they were not interested in dissent, and that most parents were too timid to try to organize a collective response. One parent whose child is in eighth grade, the final year in the school, said she didn’t want to make waves.  “There are so many other issues that are more pressing,” the parent told me, that objecting to the restrictions “didn’t seem worth it.” 

Overall, the parents I spoke with loved many things about the school, in particular the warmth of many teachers, its intimate atmosphere, and more personalized attention than they feel their kids would receive in public school. And while they feel the mitigation rules are regrettable—they know that EACMSI is perhaps the only school in America still imposing such extreme restrictions—they didn’t want to enroll their kids elsewhere. Stein, who also had many positive thoughts about the school alongside her frustrations, was nervous about sending her kids to public school. But “that was silly,” she said, looking back. “My kids are doing fine.”

After my initial exchange with the administrators at EACMSI I followed up with additional fact-checking items, and asked for more details on their claims about teachers and families requesting that the mitigation measures remain in place. The administrators did not answer my questions, but they did say: “We have announced that we will be mask-optional for the 2023–2024 contract academic year.” For Beth Stein and her daughters, though, it’s too little, too late.

The pandemic has exposed how policymakers in New York, and health authorities at the federal level, did not adequately balance the costs and benefits of interventions, in particular for children. One of the major failures is that, in many instances, officials did not set an end date or specific benchmarks for the expiration of their recommendations. So when restrictions were no longer mandated—such as when the school masking requirement in New York State was rescinded in March 2022—individual districts, and certainly private schools, were still at liberty to continue the directives. 

Nevertheless, one has to wonder how these practices can still be in place in spring 2023. It is hard to imagine how anyone still thinks masking outdoors and silent lunches offer even a modicum of benefit, let alone one that outweighs patently manifest downsides. Young children throughout most of Europe were not required to wear masks at all in school, let alone outdoors. Similarly, socializing during meals is a near-universal cultural norm throughout history. I am unaware of any authorities anywhere requiring silent lunches. 

The parents who send their children to Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School are highly educated people. But with very rare exception, that has not given them the wherewithal to stand up to absurd rules being imposed upon their children and say: “Enough.” 

David Zweig is the author of Invisibles and the forthcoming book An Abundance of Caution. Read his piece about gain-of-function research here. For more of his journalism, subscribe to his Substack.

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