Visible Smiles Return to Local Schools as State Mask Mandate Expires


School carried on in Lewis County this week much as it has all year, with one notable change: Teachers could see their students’ faces.

“There were some kids, we really didn't even know what they look like,” said Centralia High School Principal Josue Lowe. “I think, for the majority of our students, it was a happy day.”

The statewide indoor mask mandate was lifted on March 12, and with it went the state requirements for students and school staff to remain masked in the classroom. Many schools shifted to an optional mask policy on Monday, allowing students and staff to individually decide whether to wear a face covering.

“It’s great to walk the halls again and see kids smiling again,” said Onalaska Superintendent Jeff Davis on Tuesday. “And even though the second day, they just seem to be a little happier and so it (the transition) is going well.”

Schools have had several weeks to prepare families and students for the transition to optional masking, which administrators said helped smooth over the transition to optional masking.

“We have some staff, we have some students who choose to wear their masks, and there hasn't been any incidents or anyone with any comments about it. I think everyone's been super supportive and happy to have their option of deciding what they want to do,” said Morton Superintendent John Hannah.

Many other small rural school district superintendents around the state have seen similar outcomes in their schools, Hannah said.

At Centralia High School, roughly 80% of students chose to go maskless on Monday, with the remaining 20% opting to keep their masks on, according to Lowe.

“The important thing is, for our students and families, that they're doing what makes them most comfortable at this point,” said Lowe.

As of Wednesday morning, Lowe said the school hasn’t had any problems with the transition to optional masking.

“It's been a really smooth process. … We’ve had some time to prepare students and families for the transition. I think everybody was prepared for what was going to happen on Monday,” he said.

Overall, school administrators in Lewis County have said the transition to optional masking has had a positive impact on their schools.

“It has been a joy to see the smiling faces of our students while district COVID cases are at an all time low. You can’t help but smile when you see kids’ faces,” said Chehalis Superintendent Christine Moloney. “We definitely respect each person’s choice to wear a mask and will ensure that each child feels safe and welcomed.”

While there have been some concerns about potential bullying related to students who choose to continue wearing masks, Chehalis School District Communications Director Andy Lynch said Wednesday there haven’t been any instances of mask-related bullying in Chehalis schools.

“I have not heard of any bullying cases, but we would handle them the same way we handle any instance of bullying. We have staff passionate about student safety who strive for a safe, fun and welcoming environment,” he said.

The mandate expired weeks after students at schools across Lewis County and beyond staged walkouts and protests against the rule, which was set by Gov. Jay Inslee.