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For the first time in two years, most Spokane County students show their faces in class

Sometimes it takes only a smile to warm the soul.

On Monday there were tens of thousands of smiles brightening the mood at every school in Spokane County.

Amy Krauss got more than her share.

A second-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, she admitted to “not knowing what to expect” on the first day of optional masking.

But as Krauss walked out to the playground to greet her students, she found grins all around.

Her arms outstretched, Krauss’ voice filled the air.

“I can see all your beautiful faces!” she shouted. “Your faces are beautiful.”

The whole day was like that – chilly and cold but full of warm feelings, because for the first time in two years, there was a sense of normalcy in the air.

However, a few viruses are still hanging around – reason enough for some students and staff to stay masked.

As Krauss was greeting her students, Jessica Sleight walked up with her daughter, Aleda, who opted to begin the day with a mask and go from there.

“It’s exciting and a little disconcerting,” Sleight said. “Who would have thought that after two years, we would be uncertain if we want to wear a mask or not?

“We’ve gotten to the point where it’s become commonplace and comfortable.”

Many students and teachers – about one-fourth of those at Roosevelt – opted to remain in that comfort zone.

Sandra Olsen, who teaches fourth grade, said that she planned to stay masked until spring break.

“With parent conferences coming up, I don’t want to risk it,” Olsen said.

Monika Hawkinson, a sixth-grade teacher, said she was ready for the change after “two years of not being able to see the faces of our kids and not being able to connect with them on a more personal level.”

Hawkinson also said that she’s eager for the day when her students won’t have to hear her voice muffled by a mask.

“Now they can hear the words clearly,” Hawkinson said.

“We’ve become very resilient, but now it feels that things are getting back to normal.”

Some restrictions still apply. Nurses still will be masked, and so will any student who needs medical attention.

With COVID metrics near record lows, Spokane Public Schools is ending contact tracing. However, families must fill out the district’s COVID-19 reporting form to report symptoms or a positive COVID-19 case.

The district will continue to require staff, students and volunteers to follow school district health and safety protocols when symptomatic or positive for COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status.

Also still in place is a requirement that all employees and volunteers in educational settings to be fully vaccinated or have a religious or medical exemption.

At every level, the district is attempting to ease the transition for everyone, especially the minority of students who have elected to stay masked.

Roosevelt Principal Erin Conley said she’s tried to get ahead of the issue, trying to make everyone understand that some students have circumstances at home that might force the issue.

“On Fridays, we always send out a bulletin to the staff, and last week I talked a lot about choice and grace and respect.”

Conley said the emphasis this month at Roosevelt is on empathy – “walking in each others’ shoes,” she said.

Almost by design, last month’s theme was kindness – “that we all have the right to make that choice and try to see things from each other’s circumstances.”

That message transcends grade levels.

On Monday at Ferris High School, about 20% of students wore masks.

Anticipating that some might face peer pressure to remove them, Principal John O’Dell said the school stressed in messages that face coverings are optional.

“And the reasons why some people would continue to wear masks, we didn’t want that to become an issue.”

Back at Roosevelt, Krauss led her smiling second-graders into class and delivered the same message.

“OK, how’s everyone feeling about masks?” Krauss asked her 18 students. “Who gives it a thumbs-up?”

Most responded enthusiastically, but the five still wearing masks weren’t so sure.

“That’s right,” Krauss said. “We all have an opinion, and we need to respect opinions.”