Barnes Butte Kindergarten teacher Mikayla Rennels welcomed her 20 students back into the classroom one by one on Monday morning, meeting their wide-eyed gazes.
“How does it feel to not wear your mask today?”
“Happy,” one student replied with a big grin.
It was the first time the young class in Prineville had ever walked into school without masks, just a couple of days after Oregon dropped its indoor mask mandate.
“Two years ago, we went home for an extra-long spring break and never came back,” Rennels said. “Seeing all their cute little faces is just so exciting, and I think it’s going to be really good for them.”
Dr. Sara Johnson, the Crook County School District Superintendent, took some time to visit classes and witness the unveiling for herself.
“It’s great to see people’s faces again and we’re just eager to move forward. We think we’ve had a long two years, and we’re eager to move forward and just focus on school,” she said.
When asked what he likes most about not wearing a mask, 6-year-old Maverick replied, “walking into school, wearing my mask, and seeing my friends.”
“I don’t like masks, ’cause I can’t breathe in them,” added Harper, another 6-year-old classmate.
There are currently two students positive for COVID-19 in the Crook County School District.
Even so, some are still taking precautions, and a few students still wore masks in the hallways on Monday.
Rennels took the opportunity to educate her class about how to respond to those who make different choices.
“What if you were walking in the hallway and someone was still wearing their mask?” she asked her students, who sat huddled in a circle at the front of the classroom.
One girl raised her hand.
“You can’t be mean to them,” she said.
“We don’t want to be mean to them. Can we tell them we like their mask?” Rennels replied.
“Yes!” several voices exclaimed.
“I think for me at least the number one thing I teach in my room is kindness, and just being kind to others even if they’re different or making different choices than you,” Rennels told Central Oregon Daily News afterward.
“I know there’s teachers in this school that are still wearing masks, and there’s kids that are still going to be wanting to wear their masks, and I just think it’s important that it’s an inclusive environment for everyone.”
The district is looking forward to an easier time for both teachers and students.
“It’s really hard teaching letter names and letter sounds to ‘Kinders’ when they can’t see your mouth, and then to know if they’re participating or not,” Rennels said.
“Teaching effectively has been pretty difficult, but it’s exciting to know that from now on it won’t be as difficult.”
Johnson said they will continue to implement intense cleaning practices, but she is glad to see the schools taking steps back toward normalcy.
“I’ve seen so many smiling faces of children, that’s the best part, and seeing all the teachers and their smiling faces and just knowing that we’ve had a hard stretch, but we made it,” she said.