What to expect from schools after mask mandate is lifted

For the first time in two years, faces of students around the state will be seen in schools following the lift of the mask mandate on March 12.

This was announced by Gov. Jay Inslee on Feb. 26 after federal officials began loosening COVID-19 estrictions.

“We will continue to follow the department of health guidelines,” said Friday Harbor Superintendent Fred Woods. “We are happy to see that this means that students will have the choice to wear a mask or not very soon.”

Eric Webb, Orcas School District Superintendent said, “Once the statewide requirement is lifted on March 12, masks will be encouraged in our school buildings and on buses, but not required, with the expectation that an individual’s choice will be respected by all.”

Woods explained that the Washington State Department of Health promised that new K-12 guidance will continue to direct other mitigation efforts such as safe distancing, testing, and sanitizing.

The entire staff of the San Juan school district has worked very hard to keep classes in person, Woods said, adding that 2021 saw the reintroduction of in-person classes and sports for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020.

“This will remain the objective,” he said, of trying to continue this while dodging various covid strain outbreaks such as Delta and Omnicron.

To carry out that goal, Woods said the school still will encourage students and staff to stay home if they feel sick and to wash their hands frequently.

Since masks have been required, school events have either been canceled or under heavy restrictions. In 2021, Friday Harbor High School held a homecoming dance masked at the fairground. They also held assemblies, but with social distancing and masking in place. Woods said that the lifting of the mandate will no doubt bring some of these events back to life and will return to their pre-pandemic structure.

Woods also said that the school is well stocked with COVID-19 supplies, including masks and tests. The school currently does not need to fund more supplies. Since the new school levy passed, one issue that Woods said he wants to stress is funding toward student mental health assistance along with increased one-on-one academic support. This is a priority for the school as the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many people around the world, adults and students alike. Some students also learn better in an in-person setting rather than virtually. Since the school year of 2020 largely took place in an online setting, Woods fears that this stunted the learning experience of some students.

There may still be more changes to come within the school district, as more guidance from the state including testing, contract tracing, isolation and quarantining will be forthcoming.

“It has been a long time since students could attend school without masks. Returning to a sense of normalcy is as important for students as it is for all of us,” Woods concluded. “We really need this after two years of living with uncertainty. The lifting of the mask mandate is a step forward for all of us to begin to feel more certain about the future. The school experience we are all accustomed to will return. Students need and deserve it.”