Students taking off their masks, raising their voices; here’s why

A mask protest at Awest during the activities fair caused an uproar; here’s the story


Students protesting in south parking lot. Photo by Maci Lesh.

On Friday, September 10, a group of students held a protest at A-West to speak out against the school mask mandate, and more specifically what they said was a violation of the First Amendment. This protest, led by two Juniors, Annabella Mollica and Daniel Schotten, was held during the activities fair on the south side of the school where over a hundred students, intending to learn about new clubs and organizations, were met by a small group of protesters holding signs and a megaphone. 

Mollica explains why she decided to protest in the first place by saying, “My boyfriend got injured, and it’s hard for him to wear a mask and we were like, ‘Okay, I’m done with this.’ We need to stand for what we believe in”. She continues, “Last night, we went, bought a bunch of signs, wrote on them…and here we are…We’ve been working on it for a few days.”

Schotten, the other organizer, adds, “I just kinda got sick of it after a while, you know what I mean? I really can’t breathe with that stuff [masks] on, and I don’t think it’s really right to be forcing us. Yeah I mean, if somebody feels more comfortable wearing a mask, and they think they’re not going to get sick, go for it…There’s like a 99% survival rate for people that have COVID for ages 12-17, and that is the biggest targeted age group for these vaccines.” 

According to the CDC, people aged 85 and older are 570 times more likely to die from COVID compared to 5-17-year-olds. While the disease spreads to each age at an equal rate and opportunity, the elderly community, especially those who are not vaccinated, are in more danger. The CDC recommends wearing a mask in schools to protect children from the Delta variant and to protect high-risk members of the community from catching the disease. 

Mollica breaks down the sole reasons for the protest: “We are all so influenced by what we hear in the media, and by the government, and we don’t do any research to be able to form our own opinions. If masks work, then it should be up to each person. Your mask works, right? Therefore, you should be able to wear your mask and not get COVID. It should be up to us to decide whether we want to wear a mask or not. We want optional masks. I should not have to change myself for your comfort.”

While the protest was about fighting mask mandates, some students felt it was about much more. It was about the students feeling as though they could not make their own decisions. Hannah Hunter, one of the original protestors, was using the expression, more commonly recognized as a feminist statement, “My body, my choice.” This was to say she felt that the board of education was making decisions about what she can or cannot do with her body, without her consent. 

Hunter says she was asked by Mollica if she would join the protest. “She’s one of my friends, and she wanted to voice her opinion. I was like, ‘I will totally help you, like I will stand by you and support you.’”

Students protesting in the south parking lot. Photo by Alex Larson

As most of these students recognize the current situation of COVID, some believe that wearing a mask isn’t the only way to combat the pandemic. 

Hunter argues, “We should put the people who are more at risk for COVID…have them quarantined and wear masks if they want. Of course, they don’t have to.”

Alexander Sanderford, another student at A-West who joined when he noticed the protest, believes, “We have a First Amendment right, we have freedom of speech, we have practice of religion, and we have the ability to say, ‘I believe in this, [the protest] I support it,’ and that should not be allowed to be compromised.”

Shutto also echoes this by saying, “I think the mask mandates are very unconstitutional and very unlawful, and I don’t believe anybody should be forced to do something that they’re against…This country is based on our choices of freedom and you know as s***** as it is, people are not always going to make the right decisions, and it’s going to impact the country. But you still give the people the freedom of choice because at the end of the day that is what America is based on.”

The First Amendment gives citizens of the United States freedom of expression through freedom of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly. The constitution doesn’t explicitly mention “freedom of choice”. There is nothing in the constitution that gives the government power to deny someone’s choice, however, choices have inherent consequences through laws and regulations. 

As the protest progressed over about forty minutes, a few students began to join the protest because they agreed with what they saw. Within that time, the group increased from roughly five students to almost twenty. Trevin Torres and Hayden Olson were among that group.

Olson comments, “I’m vaccinated and I don’t feel like I should have to wear a mask if other people don’t want to get vaccinated.”

Many students had varying reasons for the protest. 

Sanderford explains his reasons for protesting. “I’m personally up here for debate on the fact that it’s hard to prove that masks actually work, it is much easier to prove that masks aren’t working and that we’re ultimately trying to protect ourselves from something that is less dangerous than the flu.”

Mollica concludes, “I know I’m in the right, I’m standing for what I believe in, I’m supporting my country. It’s that simple.” 

Protesters come together for a final photo. Photo by Maci Lesh.

The mask mandate continues to stay intact for schools across Jefferson County.

Geree Santarelli, the principal, comments, “They have a right to protest. They walked up, you know there’s not really much as a school I can do about it. I can keep them safe and keep my other student body safe. That’s what I need to do.” She continues, “We are, as a school, mandated by the public health order. We do what we’ve been told to do, and we have to comply with it. If it keeps kids in school, that’s what we gotta do.”