Nicole LeBarnes said she’s felt her spirits lift in the two weeks since her students began attending school without having to wear masks for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It does a lot for the soul to have people smiling back at you,” said LeBarnes, who teaches sixth-grade math at Hermon Middle School. “I definitely took that for granted.”
The Hermon School Department was one of the first in the Bangor area to drop its mask requirement for students and teachers this winter following a downward trend in COVID cases. The mask-optional policy took effect March 7. Since then, some students have still worn face coverings, but most have opted to go without one, Principal Micah Grant said.
Teachers and students have been happy with the change to mostly normal operations for the first time since March 2020, when the pandemic forced school fully remote for the remainder of that school year, then a hybrid in-person and remote schedule last school year.
Crucially, there have been no positive COVID cases since then. The school continues to conduct pooled testing with 180 participants, and there were no active cases in the most recent round of results from last week, Grant said.
Isabella Ingalls, 14, chooses to continue to wear a mask to school but said seeing her classmates’ faces for the first time was a big deal.
“It’s good to see my friends’ faces,” the eighth grader said. “It definitely makes learning easier. Voices are less muffled.”
For now, Ingalls is opting to wear a mask, but she anticipates starting high school in the fall without one. It’s on track to be her first school year since fifth grade not disrupted in a major way by the pandemic.
Jacob Hulberg, 14, a classmate of Ingalls’ in Kelly Donato’s eighth-grade English/Language Arts class, said that he looked forward to running track for the first time in the spring, and without wearing a mask.
“I love it,” Hulberg said of not having to wear a mask at school anymore. “It’s impacted my day positively, but at the same time, not really at all.”
Early research shows that masking presents minimal obstacles to socializing, but teachers said that being able to see their students’ faces for the first time allowed them to communicate more effectively with them nonverbally, and without having to project through a mask.
“I myself have enjoyed being able to smile at my kids and have them see my whole face,” said Allyson LeClair, a sixth-grade social studies teacher. “It’s done a lot for morale.”
Seventh-grade social studies teacher Sonya Wedge put it more bluntly, as she watched her students do a geography exercise about Russia and Europe.
“I feel fantastic,” Wedge said. “I feel liberated.”
Grant and other teachers also said that the school has escaped some of the heated arguments about masking that emerged in other districts earlier in the school year.
While 90 percent of students chose to not wear masks anymore, there are about 25 to 35 students like Ingalls who still attend school wearing a mask, Grant said. He hasn’t received any complaints about unmasked kids bullying those who wear one.
“Given the last two years, what most students have been through, I think it’s kind of given them a little bit of wisdom,” LeClair said. “It seems like kids have matured and have learned to respect each other.”