Covid masks come off in Peninsula schools … or not
Gig Harbor High School students streamed into the commons Monday, most of them going without Covid-19 masks at school for the first time in almost two years.
“I feel really good,” freshman Max Potashnick said. “I feel like I don’t have to worry about not bringing a mask. I feel a lot more free, if that makes sense.”
“I feel, like, just more happy to see everyone’s faces and get to know everyone better,” said Braden Smee, also a freshman.
Sophomore Ryan Smith was among those choosing to keep his mask on this first day of school since Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the statewide indoor mask mandate.
“I continue to wear a mask because I feel like we should still be safe, because the virus can still spread,” Smith said.
Masks optional in Peninsula School District
The mask mandate was lifted on March 12 (11:59 p.m., Friday March 11 to be exact), marking a milestone in our collective adjustment to COVID-19, as the potentially deadly illness is not eradicated but accommodated.
Masks are still required on public transit, and in healthcare facilities and jails. Businesses may choose whether to require masks.
Peninsula School District, following state guidelines, has made masks optional for students and staff. Masks are now not required on school buses and inside school facilities (except in the health room).
“We really want to honor people’s choice to keep their masks on if that’s what they choose. I know I have a number of students who will make that choice.”
Michele Suiter, principal at Gig Harbor High School
“I think there’s anticipation, excitement, trepidation. I think there’s a whole lot of feelings that are going on right now,” said Gig Harbor principal Michele Suiter. “I think these students have been through a lot in the last two years and I think they’re a little nervous about what it’s going to look like on the other side and need some assurance.”
Counselors are standing by, available for any students who may be feeling anxious about the transition. The district is promoting a message of tolerance.
“I know some of our staff and students will want to continue to mask up,” Superintendent Krestin Bahr said in an advisory to families. “Please know that we will support everyone in their decisions and respect everyone’s right to choose for themselves.”
“We really want to honor people’s choice to keep their masks on if that’s what they choose,” Suiter said. “I know I have a number of students who will make that choice.”
Reasons range from concern for vulnerable family members and others, to making the extra effort to stay well for travel over spring break.
Flashback to school closures
The mask mandate was lifted nearly two years to the day that schools were shuttered by Covid. Gig Harbor High sophomore Madeleine Reneau remembers it well.
“I just remember it being a normal day and that I had to present something in my health class,” said Reneau, then in eighth grade. “And they were like, ‘Oh, look, school got closed for two weeks.’ Yay.”
Then the reality set in.
“I was dying inside because it was like, two weeks of not going anywhere,” she said.
What followed was a chaotic stumble into long-distance classes, then hybrid learning. Masks were part of the equation for safety per state health guidelines, and required for schools by the Department of Health and Office of the Superintendent of Public Education.
Reneau and her peers don’t have any memories of high school without the mask mandate.
For some students, the prospect of going without a mask on Monday was both exhilarating and, well, “weird.”
“I guess the main thing will be seeing people’s faces for the first time in two years, which is going to be a weird experience, I guess, especially for people I haven’t seen before,” said Michael Fain, a classmate of Reneau’s, in an interview the week before the mandate was lifted.
“It’s crazy how, like, how our brains can’t comprehend what people’s faces look like,” said sophomore Brody Workman, another student in Reneau’s English literature class. “Like trying to picture what someone’s going to look like, and they take their mask off after seeing the upper half of their face for a year, and it’s insane what they look like. Like, it’s, I don’t know, it’s just really weird.”
In Reneau’s English lit class, three students indicated they’ll be sticking with masks on. None wanted to comment about their choice.
Suiter expects about 10 percent of her staff will continue to wear masks.
Reasons to celebrate
Students who planned to go without masks found other reasons to celebrate.
“I’m looking forward to not having to worry about it interfering with my breathing,” Workman said.
And then there’s that rash thing.
“Sometimes it, like, builds a rash on my chin,” said sophomore Josh Petrenko. “It’s kind of weird. I don’t know how to explain it. But it’s just kind of weird to have it on at all times.”
Lifting the mask mandate will improve communication between students and teachers, Reneau expects.
“I’m looking forward to being able to learn better without having to have the teachers complain about wearing masks and having them complain to put your mask over your nose like 24/7,” she said.
She also expects it will be easier to understand and be understood by teachers.
Her teacher, Jessica Hupper, says the change will help her connect with students.
“I just think it’s difficult to know people as well and build relationships as well when you just can’t see all of them, you know?” she said.
As to the buzz that some students may be feeling a little self-conscious about dropping the mask
“That’s true, too, for sure. I mean, goodness gracious, they’re teenagers who have had half their face covered up for two years,” Suiter said. “Yeah, there’s going to be some of that. And I think part of it is recognizing that it’s going to be a little weird, maybe at first, and then the next week is going to go by, and then next week is going to go by, and it’s going to be really good.”
Students promote respect
Fifth grade students at Discovery Elementary produced a video Friday explaining their choices and urging their peers to be respectful of others’ decisions.
“I am choosing to wear my mask in class but take it off at recess,” said Paige Gray. “I am choosing to do this because I want to protect my friends and family.”
“I am choosing to take off my mask because I feel I can breathe better,” said Hayden Smith.
Lyla Parks was happy to take off her mask, “because it makes my face get all sweaty. And I don’t like having acne.”
Olive Gatto, perhaps jaded by past pandemic experience, was cautiously optimistic.
“I’m kind of excited about it and kind of nervous about it, because I don’t know if something will happen and we we’re going to need to go back,” she said. “But I think that this will be a permanent change.”