‘Feels like the first day’: A look inside a local elementary school as masks come off for the first time in two years

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. – Masks are now optional for students and staff in Washington schools. Two years have passed since teachers saw their students’ full faces and smiles.

Students went to remote learning in March of 2020 then came back to class in the fall of 2021 with masks required. The Washington Department of Health (DOH) and Governor Jay Inslee recently changed guidelines to make masks optional.

The mask mandate lifting isn’t the only change in schools on Monday, some districts chose to go away with social distancing as well as contact tracing. Some families also may not see as many COVID exposure emails either, as DOH says districts are no longer required to notify people of close contact unless they are staff members or students at high risk.

Each school district is different in what recommendations it chooses to go with.

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However, masks are the biggest change in many schools across Eastern Washington Monday.

“It feels like the first day all over again,” said Ross Johnson, a second-grade teacher at Greenacres Elementary School.

He said students were excited to be in school and the energy was through the roof.

He hadn’t seen students without masks in two years.

“There’s tons of excitement. Kids are just smiling,” he said. “All of them are smiling, running up to me, giving me a big hug. It just feels like normal again.”

“A little first grader got out of the car today and goes, ‘Mrs. Banks, is that you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is me! Then he goes, ‘Oh, okay,’ and took off down the road running and smiling and giggling the whole way,” said Becky Banks, the assistant principal. “Just overall a sense of completion and excitement with kids and families today.”

The last two years have been anything but normal, especially in schools where more COVID measures had to be in place than other public places.

“It’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come over the past two years,” Johnson said.

Two years ago, Principal Lindsay Kent was scrambling, trying to figure out what to do and how to move forward when Governor Inslee announced school closures.

He said it’d be for six weeks, but it turned out to be months.

“It was very challenging. It was very hard for our teachers to figure out how to teach online. It was very hard for our families to figure out how to get their kids connected with teachers and learning” Kent said. “The journey to get to this point was long and full of many twists and turns.”

While there are many students who are excited to no longer wear masks, there are others who don’t feel the same. Some are still nervous and anxious to go without or have personal reasons why they want to continue wearing masks.

Banks put together a video with students about how to address and help their classmates, who still want to wear masks, to feel comfortable.

“We got together a variety of grade levels and had them talk with one another about feelings they might have about what today might feel like. How we would show up for one another despite our differences and opinions,” Banks said. “Focusing on that idea of community and showing up for one another.”

While the masks get to come off now, there’s a chance they could be required again if another surge happens.

Johnson said he’s choosing to enjoy what he can now.

“I think as long as we are just in this moment, and we’re making the most of the opportunity we’re given right now, I can set that aside for myself and just continue to make the best of this,” he said.

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