Students and teachers across the state will be able to go to class without masks starting March 21, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday. For some of Washington’s youngest students, it will be their first time experiencing school without wearing a mask.

“This is a big moment,” said state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal, appearing with Inslee at Thursday’s news conference.

But Reykdal also cautioned that the step doesn’t mean the end of the global virus outbreak. “It means we have a little bit more flexibility now to take that next step.”

Masks won’t be required at schools, child care facilities and most other businesses, Inslee said, but they’ll still be required on school buses and public transit. And school districts can choose to require students and teachers to wear masks even after the mandate ends. The Department of Health will update its guidelines for schools the week of March 7.

The announcement comes one week after Reykdal asked Inslee and the state health department to remove the statewide mask mandate and allow local health officials to make those decisions instead. 

Masks used to be the only tool to keep communities safe from COVID-19, Reykdal said, but with the widespread availability of vaccines and rapid testing, and greater knowledge of the virus, schools can take another step toward normalcy.

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But most of the half-dozen parents interviewed outside Seattle’s Kimball Elementary on Beacon Hill have reservations about dropping masks. Waiting to pick up her 6-year-old, Abeba Gugsa’s eyes grew wide when she heard about Inslee’s announcement. COVID, she said, “is still running rampant. Why not wear a mask if you can?”  

Plus, Gugsa said, she’s worried about her son bringing COVID home. She’s immunocompromised and pregnant. “The baby’s not going to be vaccinated,” she said. 

Gugsa said she didn’t buy the popular notion that masks interfere with children’s social and emotional development. “He’s still able to laugh and talk and play games,” Gugsa said of her son, adding masks haven’t stopped him from making friends.

During a Seattle School Board meeting earlier this month, some Seattle parents told board members their young children have struggled to learn with masks on. They called for an end to the mask requirements.

Seattle Public Schools needs to bargain with the Seattle Education Association, its teachers union, before any permanent changes are made, spokesperson Tim Robinson said. The district will also look to local public health experts for guidance. 

A group of Seattle students has been demanding stricter protocols and asked the district to provide high-quality masks. Students who are part of those activism efforts have said they won’t feel safe in school if the mandate is lifted.

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“Right now it does not make any sense to lift the mask mandate,” said Miles Hagopian, a seventh grader at Mercer International Middle School. “Another variant could pop up and we should try as hard as we can to limit the spread, especially at schools where you have so many different kids in one place.”

Miles, who is a member of the Seattle Student Union, a group of Seattle students leading organizing efforts, said he wouldn’t feel safe in crowded hallways without masks. Students are currently planning to take action if Seattle Schools chooses not to extend mask-wearing in schools.

“This will especially affect BIPOC students just because of access to vaccines and KN95 masks as we have already seen,” said Hagopian, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.

In Eastern Washington, nearly 50 districts have already called on state leaders to lift the mandate. Some school boards have also voted to make masks optional — going against the current state law. 

The Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, will continue to support and follow advice from health officials, said Larry Delaney, president of the union. 

“Regardless of what the issue is since the beginning of the pandemic, WEA has supported and followed the advice of public health experts,” Delaney said. “We are optimistic and put our trust in the projections they are putting out there are accurate.”

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However, not all union members agree, Delaney said. Some educators say it’s too soon to end mask requirements, and some are especially concerned with the school districts that have already taken steps to make masks optional.

Coronavirus case rates at Seattle Schools have declined every week since early January, when the district hit its biggest outbreak — 1,879 cases in one week. Last week the district reported 274 cases.

Before Seattle Schools makes a decision to drop masks, Kimball parent Ammal Mohamed would like to see it assess, over at least a few months, the rate of infection not only locally but worldwide. Her son, Muadh Nur, said he agreed, although he’d like to see masks come off soon. They make his mouth sweaty and his teacher sometimes has to tell him to put his mask back on, said the 4th grader.  

Elliott Hill, 8, was more eager to be done with it all. “Our mask has been on for a long time,” said the Kimball student.

His dad, David Rousseau, said he’s comfortable with masks coming off. “It seems like we are transitioning to more of an end phase,” Rousseau said. “It really should be up to the individual at this point.”

That said, he added, different regions should be able to make their own decisions based on the vulnerability of their populations, and March is a long time away. “If the data changes, everything has to adjust.”

In recent weeks, the move away from school mask mandates has grown nationwide, according to the online publication Education Week. By March 31, requirements in six states — Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island — are scheduled to end. On Thursday, Washington became the seventh.