BELLEVUE — Kindergarten teacher Betzabeth Alvarado-Jurista counted just four bare faces in her class of 18 kids on Monday morning, not including her own.
It was a slightly surprising outcome on the first day masks were optional in Washington state schools, she said. But she and her colleagues at Bellevue’s Lake Hills Elementary School had prepared for it.
A few minutes after school began, she gathered the tots on a rainbow carpet and gave them a 5-year-old’s version of a public health keynote in both English and Spanish: “Neither choice is wrong,” said one slide, featuring a photo of kids smiling with and without face masks. “Negative comments about wearing a mask or not wearing a mask can be bullying and is not allowed.” She asked the masked and unmasked to stand and applaud for each other.
“I made this PowerPoint,” said Joe Weber, a school psychologist observing in the back of the classroom. “And it was hard to make something that stayed away from politics.”
As one of the visual hallmarks of the pandemic falls out of public health guidance, schools in the Seattle region — where adherence to preventive measures is among the strongest in the country — are contending with an environment where comfort levels with unmasking are all over the map.
Though cases have continued to fall in King County and inside schools, many are still treading carefully, including households with kids under 5 and immunocompromised people.
There are no official tallies, but on Monday half or most of the kids arriving at Lake Hills had their masks on, depending on whom you asked. Idling in the drop-off lane, Kimberly Ruvalcaba said her little brother, over whom she has legal guardianship, was disappointed to hear that she wanted him to wear a mask. But, with a newborn at home, she was “a little scared” and needed to see the case rates trending downward for a longer period of time.
A few miles to the east, at Issaquah’s Challenger Elementary, about half of Natalie Radigan’s 15 first graders started the day off with masks. But by lunchtime, only five students still had masks on.
Radigan taught her students a phonics lessons before lunch Monday, and said it was easier without a mask on. While not all teachers and staff at Challenger went maskless, Radigan said she chose not to wear one because she’s vaccinated and COVID-19 cases are dropping.
“We went over why some people will still wear masks to help them [students] understand it’s OK if you’re scared or excited,” Radigan said.
Although mom Chelsey Burgheimer said she was excited that her kids could go to Challenger without masks, her first grade daughter had a hard time walking into school maskless.
“We had a little conversation about how some kids will wear masks and others won’t,” Burgheimer said. “I thought they were OK but my daughter was very nervous. She hasn’t known school without a mask and it’s a big change.”
Mom Ayumi Hatano is asking her kids, who are in second and fifth grades at Challenger, to keep their masks on — at least while they are indoors. “They are still very nervous,” she said.
In Seattle, the transition to optional mask-wearing has rattled some students and teachers. The Seattle Education Association accused the district of violating its memorandum of understanding with teachers after Superintendent Brent Jones announced Wednesday that the mask requirement would end this week. Union officials said the district had promised to bargain over it first.
The Seattle Student Union, a group of student advocates across the district, is threatening to walk out of school next Monday if the district doesn’t reinstate the mask mandate.
In a letter to Jones and the school board, Seattle students asked the district to require masks for at least two weeks after spring break to prevent another surge in cases at schools. After students returned from winter break, cases in the district skyrocketed, causing some schools to close and others to go remote.
“By challenging this, you are directly putting children that cannot be vaccinated due to their parents or other reasons, as well as immunocompromised students, in harm’s way,” the letter said. “We know that masking is safe and effective, and there are minimal effects on mental health.”
Seattle Schools denied media requests, including one from The Seattle Times, to allow reporters to visit schools Monday.
The omicron variant has proved powerfully contagious in schools, even with universal masking in place. And a study released last month suggests the Pfizer vaccine, approved for kids 5-11, provided very little protection against infection from omicron. (The dose, which is about one-third of what is offered to older kids and adults, is still protective against severe illness.)
The omicron wave, which prompted mass school closures and staff shortages in January, is weighing heavy for some.
Back in Bellevue, mother Simone Parker said she’s personally not ready for her son’s mask to come off, but that for others it might be the right time.
“I just hope this doesn’t cause the rates to spike,” said Parker.
Bellevue mom Yamile Urcelay said she was tired of masks. But her two children are of different minds on the issue. Her 5-year-old, Emma, was happy to shed hers, while Diego, her 9-year-old brother, is keeping his on because it makes him feel “more secure.” Another mother, Simone Parker, said she’s personally not ready for her son’s mask to come off but that for others it might be the right time.
Even the staff appeared to be split in mask-wearing — which Erin King, the school’s principal, said is actually a good way of modeling how the masks are now a choice.
“As a principal, I’m conscious that whatever decision I make [about whether to wear a mask] is going to be seen as ‘the right one’, ” she said, unmasked in her office. The school’s assistant principal, on the other hand, has chosen to stay masked for his family’s safety.
King has only been a principal at the school during the pandemic. Tears filled her piercing blue eyes as she said she’s been waiting for the moment where she can show her full smile to the kids. But because she knows some are not comfortable about going maskless or have immunocompromised family members, she keeps a pile of masks in her office to slip on when needed.
Last week, school counselors Sean Tsoi and Nicole Andrade went into classrooms to address any social issues or confusion that could arise. They noted that several students who seemed excited for the transition ended up arriving at school masked Monday.
“They may be waiting to see what others are doing,” said Andrade.
For the rest of this week, Alvarado-Jurista is going to wear her mask for half the day to show her students the choice they have. After that, she will take it off permanently — as a bilingual teacher, she says it’s been harder to communicate with a mask. Her students, however, can take their time.
“Just like it was hard to put them on, it’s hard to take them off,” she said.