Musical staff

Wrangell students and staff weigh in on relaxed masking rules at school

Students wait outside Stikine Middle School.
(Wise Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell Public Schools made masks optional just over a week ago. KSTK asked students and staff what it was like to remove face coverings after nearly two years.

Listen to this story here.

It’s kind of overcast on Wednesday afternoon, and a small group of Wrangell Middle School students are sitting around an octagonal wooden table, having lunch. Across the yard there is a student playing basketball with a mask on, but it’s the only mask in sight.

“Honestly, it’s weird,” said sixth-grade student Peter Houser, “but it’s good. I feel like I have more freedom in what I do.

His classmate, Kailyn McCutcheon, agrees: “Very, very happy. Masks were so boring. We have 15 minutes of movement during school, and we had to wear them again. And I’d feel like I was playing in the gym, and my face would be all sweaty. Not good.”

McCutcheon says there are still people wearing masks around school, but the majority of her peers and teachers are no longer.

“I feel like a lot of people are very excited about it and hoping they stay gone,” she said, “But some people think okay, I have to stay protected. So they’re going to keep them . »

It was also useful in the orchestra, she says: “I play the flute. So [now] I don’t have to cover my instrument and I can see my fingers which is really nice.

Susan Neff, in sixth grade, is also a student orchestra – she plays the trumpet. And not having to hide?

“Much better,” Neff said.

Neff, McCutcheon and Houser were all among more than half of Wrangell’s student population who signed a petition calling for mask-wearing to become optional at Wrangell schools.

“I was like, I’m done with the masks,” says Neff: “I spent fifth grade with masks on. Two fourth-year quarterbacks, and I was just tired. You’ve had your run, but no more.

High school administrator Bob Davis says there’s a sense of relief in middle and high schools: “All the smiles we see – it’s been a long time. The kids walk in with a smile, then grab a mask and realize they don’t have to. I mean, it’s awesome.

It’s not universal, says Davis. He says there are still students and staff who choose to mask up – he estimated around 10 per cent do – but it was hard to find anyone wearing a mask when visiting the Wednesday, March 2 on campus.

“For some of them [still wearing masks], they wear it to protect others,” Davis said. “We had several students who said [for] one of our older employees, when they are in her room, they will wear masks to protect her. And that comes from the students, not the teachers. We have seen a number of cases like this, so we have kids wearing masks and getting support from other students. I think that says a lot about our children.

Throughout the pandemic, Davis has repeatedly shared her concerns about the mental and emotional toll of the pandemic on students in the district. He says it made medical sense to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“But there was always a cost,” Davis said, “not being able to see the smiles, the miscommunication that happened without seeing the facial expressions. I think a lot of kids, especially kids in middle aged, their interpretation of a lot of communication is through facial expressions and so I think over time we’re going to start to see less behavioral issues etc. because of the lack of masks, and I think that is good.

At Evergreen Elementary School, students are equally excited that masks are optional.

“My friends and I really like to crack jokes,” says fifth-grade student Charlie Nelson. “When you can see their smile and you can see they’re laughing, it’s good to see people smile again.”

Nelson was among a group of fifth graders who lobbied for masking to be made optional in schools. Nelson and classmate Clara Carney helped organize small protests, a strike, and even enlisted the help of a school administrator to conduct a survey of students in grades three through five.

“[Jenn Miller-Yancey] I talked to the superintendent about it,” Nelson explains, “and I guess we couldn’t do ‘yes’ or ‘no’ surveys. And so we changed it to -”

His classmate Clara Carney intervenes: “- to a full investigation. And we got it from fifth to third [grades]. And the majority of people wanted optional masking.

Even after advocating for optional masking, Nelson and Carney say it’s surreal.

“We got so used to it,” Nelson says, “Because it’s been so long, that after we finish eating and when we go to get up and wash our hands or something, we try to reach our mask, or take it off our face, but it’s not there.

“We were all like checking our pockets before going inside,” adds Carney, “And after the music, we were trying to find our masks after playing our instruments.”

Jenn Miller-Yancey, the elementary school’s homeroom teacher, who helped with the investigation, says the transition was smooth, but the school’s energy hasn’t changed too much.

“Of course,” says Miller-Yancey, “we talk a lot about respect, because we knew some would still choose to mask up, even though it was now optional. And honestly, I checked with the teachers again today, and it went well. There have been no issues, some choose to wear them, most choose not to and it’s going great.

She said she didn’t have a solid estimate of the number of masked and unmasked masks, but added that it could change throughout the day, even for her.

“If I’m working closely with a student, I always mask up,” she explained. “I want to make sure that I protect everyone I work with, in case I have [COVID]. When I was in a meeting, and there were only a few people in the meeting, and we were all scattered, I didn’t hide myself. So people not only choose whether to wear it or not, but when they are [wearing a mask] in the building.”

Across the district, COVID prevention measures other than masking — like sanitizing surfaces, maintaining distance where possible, and screening for symptoms — are still in place. And optional masking depends on low case numbers and low levels of risk to the community.

“It’s definitely a huge turning point here,” says Miller-Yancey, “And I just hope we can keep our mitigation the same for the rest of the school year. That would be a real giveaway.”

The Wrangell School Board will continue to monitor the COVID prevention plan – the next meeting is scheduled for March 21.

Contact KSTK at [email protected] or (907) 874-2345.