On March 7, students and staff in Orange County Schools were allowed to come to school unmasked for the first time since the district's return to in-person instruction.
The Orange County Schools Board of Education voted unanimously on Feb. 21 to lift the mask mandate in schools following a recommendation from Gov. Roy Cooper. The decision has led to mixed reactions from OCS parents, students and educators.
Mahaley Burch, a senior at Orange High School, said she continues to wear her mask but many of her peers do not.
“There's been a mixture of people still wearing masks and people without masks and everyone’s been pretty respectful of each other,” she said.
However, some students have said that fewer and fewer people are wearing masks as time passes. Caiden Kulberg, a junior at Cedar Ridge High School, said he predicts that more people will stop wearing masks as the end of the school year approaches.
“I’ve been seeing a lot less people wearing their masks throughout the week," Kulberg said. "A lot of my teachers aren’t even wearing them anymore.”
Tameka Street, the parent of a ninth-grader at Orange High School and a first-grader at Central Elementary School, said she believes masks are important for the health and safety of her children. Both of them still wear masks in school, she said.
For county residents like Kulberg and Street, protecting elderly or immunocompromised family members is also a factor in choosing to still wear masks.
Kulberg said he wears a mask in school to protect his grandmother.
“I just don’t want to get sick," he said. "My grandma, she’s immunocompromised, and I like to see her a lot, so if I get sick I won’t be able to see her.”
Devin Goss, a senior and athlete at Orange High School, said he was excited that the mask mandate was lifted. He said he found it difficult to interact with his teachers and peers when he had to wear a mask.
“I couldn't even talk to my teachers without them saying ‘can you speak up,’ and it was hard to breathe when I was wearing it for practice,” Goss said.
Not all students were looking forward to the lift of the mandate.
Adeline Cummings, a ninth-grader at Cedar Ridge High School, said she feels uncomfortable being in classrooms with unmasked students.
“I am very uncomfortable with the mask mandate being lifted, especially because vaccinations are not required, and so right now I stay masked,” Cummings said.
In August, the OCS Board of Education said it would not vote on mandating the COVID-19 vaccine until the Federal Drug Administration gives final approval.
Eric Stephens, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Orange Middle School, said with the mask mandate lifted, not much has changed. He said his teaching style and the interactions he has observed in his classroom have remained the same.
“It really hasn’t affected the day-to-day operation of what we have been doing,” Stephens said.
He said his students have been respectful of each other’s choices despite differences in masking preferences. Although he remains masked himself, Stephens said he has liked seeing his students' faces.
For now, although some students have chosen to go to school unmasked, there continues to be a population of students that show up with a mask on.
“I think people will continue to wear them just to be cautious because COVID is still going around,” Goss said.
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