Students learn what school without masks feels like
St. Paul Elementary first graders Lydia Marcum (left) and Maya Baker are happy Monday to be in school without masks. “When you have a mask, you never really see your friends,” said Maya. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Juan Rivera, maintenance supervisor for the St. Paul School District, was a bundle of enthusiasm as he greeted students getting out of cars.
“I can see the happiness,” he said. “I’m seeing faces I’ve never seen before.”
Monday’s school bells launched a psychological and physical shift away from COVID-19 caution as students and staff across Oregon were allowed to make their own decisions about wearing a mask for the first time in two years. Many have wished and argued for this day for a long time, but for children or family members who remain at higher risk, it still is coming too soon.
The Medford School District, for instance, is careful to say masks are optional now, not “going away,” to avoid stressing students and staff who choose to continue wearing them, said Janel Reed, Medford School District chief human resources officer.
“There are a lot of folks who are very excited and others who are maybe less excited,” she said.
At St. Paul south of Newberg, English Language Development teacher Kristi Stoltenberg said it was definitely louder in the cafeteria as students waited for classes to start, the excitement clear.
Still, third grader Genesis Anaya-Nolasco was wearing a mask sitting next to a friend without one. She said she is doing it to protect her mom. First grader Alexa Campos was wearing a mask next to a friend without because her mother is worried about not all the kids in her class being vaccinated.
Few people guessed the ways COVID-19 would twist education when the first cases appeared in Oregon more than two years ago.
On March 16, 2020, Oregon schools began a two-week closure to halt COVID-19’s spread. That closure expanded to the end of the school year, plunging most students into distance learning that continued through the 2020-21 school year. The fast-spreading delta variant this past summer prompted continued state-mandated precautions, with masks being the most divisive.
Gov. Kate Brown dropped the statewide schools mask mandate Saturday, March 12, putting mask requirement decisions in the hands of local school leaders and health officials. The majority of Oregon school districts have made masks a staff and student choice.
Hawaii is the only state still requiring masks indoors, and it will end its mandate March 26. Only a few school districts around the country have announced ongoing mask requirements. The Parkrose School District in east Portland said it would require masks until March 29.
The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education have aimed to align Oregon’s updated school guidances with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
The CDC recommends universal face masks indoors in counties deemed at high risk based on hospitalizations and case counts. In Oregon, only Klamath and Lake counties remain in the high-risk category as of March 10.
On Friday, Oregon State Epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger told Oregon Public Broadcasting the omicron threat receded much quicker than predicted. He said most Oregonians can feel safe going out without masks.
Dr. Eliza Hayes Bakken, medical director of the primary care practice at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, said increased vaccination numbers, decreased case numbers and the end of mask requirements are cause for celebration. She added, though, that masking will remain important for many Oregonians, depending on their personal risk tolerance, their ability to get vaccinated and their contact with vulnerable family and friends.
Bakken has two school-aged children, and she said they will probably keep wearing masks for now. She said parents need to talk with their children about masking so that they can understand family decisions and be empathetic for other families’ decisions.
School and health officials need to be clear that the mask mandate’s end doesn’t mean the virus is behind us, Bakken said, so they can maintain public trust in case a COVID-19 mutation or a new threat requires a return to masks.
She encouraged school leaders to be ready to close classrooms or ask schools to mask for a short time to prevent outbreaks and keep children in school. School leaders around the state have said their communities have little appetite for extending the current mask mandate but they would reinstitute mask requirements if needed.
Although the latest “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance from the Oregon Department of Education dropped quarantining and contact tracing requirements, some school leaders say they will continue to let families know if someone in a cohort contracts COVID-19.
St. Paul Superintendent Joseph Wehrli said last week that staff were discussing how to implement mask choice while maintaining a welcoming environment. He said a community survey showed about 18% of parents said they would have their students wear a mask.
On Monday, about a quarter of St. Paul Elementary students arrived wearing masks but most took them off soon after they got inside.
Third grader Samantha Cristobal was happy to have her mask off, but she said it did make her feel uncomfortable.
“I’ve worn a mask and it felt normal, and now without a mask it feels weird,” Samantha said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA