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‘Going back to normal’

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Eagle Point High School students Allison Sked, Taylor Slayton and Crow Sked in the hallway Tuesday morning. The Sked sisters have decided to wear their masks due to their father being immuno-compromised.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Eagle Point culinary arts teacher Virginia Cortez works with students Tuesday in the the high school’s instructional kitchen, which she says has plenty of sinks and hygiene items to keep hands clean.
Students, teachers, admins weigh in on state’s decision to lift the indoor mask mandate for K-12 schools

By global pandemic standards, this week is out of the ordinary for schools in the Rogue Valley, including Eagle Point High School.

That’s because students and staff in the region resumed classes without having to wear face coverings indoors — a requirement the state lifted just before the stroke of midnight March 12, a Saturday, when many K-12 institutions had nothing going on.

So, Eagle Point High School students Taylor Slayton and sisters Allison and Madison Sked found themselves back in class Monday, among teachers and friends — many of whom were observed unmasked when the Mail Tribune paid a visit to the school the following day.

“It feels like things are finally going back to normal,” said Slayton, who chose not to wear a mask.

She admits she didn’t like them “from the beginning,” and with so many different kinds to choose from, including homemade face coverings, Slayton didn’t feel as though they were truly effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus.

“It was almost pointless,” she said. “If you don’t have to wear the ones that are working, then I don’t understand why you have to wear them at all.”

Allison and Madison Sked explained their decision to wear a mask has to do with their father, who is immuno-compromised.

The Oregon Health Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people continue to wear masks if they have compromised immune systems or live with others at high risk of severe disease.

“If he gets COVID-19, then the likelihood of him dying is increased,” Allison said of her dad, adding that she works at the Walmart in town. “Not wearing my mask is putting a lot more people at risk. I just wear my mask to reduce the spread.”

Madison noted that some of her friends are also immuno-compromised.

“My friends are already going through a lot, and I don’t want to add (to their) chances of getting COVID-19,” she said.

Madison went on to say it “feels weird” seeing her peers’ faces in school.

“With the masks, your brain tries to fill in the rest of the face,” she said. Seeing people without their masks, it’s either like, ‘Oh, you have a face,’ or, ‘I didn’t expect you to look like that.’ It’s interesting to see what people actually look like.”

Slayton noticed something else about some of her friends not wearing masks.

“I felt fine, but I know there were a lot of people who were almost nervous to not wear theirs … because people haven’t seen their faces in so long,” she said. “It was almost like an insecurity to take them off.”

The high school’s culinary instructor, Virginia Cortez, chose not to wear a mask. She noted that she took every precaution, including getting vaccinated, so she could reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus without wearing one.

“When everyone’s cooking, it was sometimes a barrier for the students to hear me in the back,” Cortez said. “I feel like now I can be heard all the way in the back of the room much easier than before.”

Not only that, the high school’s instructional kitchen, from which Cortez spoke as she kept a watchful eye on her class, has plenty of sinks and hygiene items to keep hands clean.

Cortez notices a definite change in her students, most of whom she said are at school maskless.

“I feel like the masks were some sort of barrier for some students when it came to interactions during class time,” Cortez said. “With them off, I have noticed a lot more people interacting with each other, and I feel like they’re freer to answer questions.”

Masks also made it more difficult for her to gauge how her students were interpreting her feedback, especially since she teaches in a long classroom.

Cortez has not heard a lot of discussion between students on masking. She did note a video district officials released to students about being respectful of other people’s choices.

“I think the district jumped ahead on that to prevent anything from happening,” Cortez said. “I haven’t heard any negativity — nothing. I’m not surprised. Now, with everyone being allowed to make their own choice, I feel like they’re happy just to make the choice, so they’re not weighing in on others’ choices.”

The end of the mask mandate was complicated by the fact that the high school had a play going on Friday night, hours before the mandate’s lift, and March 12, the first full day indoor masking was not required.

That meant one evening, signs stating “masks required” had to be removed and replaced with new signage. To pull that off, the maintenance and custodial crew worked a late shift to install it all, said Dean MacInnis, the Eagle Point School District communications supervisor.

“We had to do a quick switch to make sure we were following the Oregon guidance accordingly,” MacInnis said.

Also of note were videos the district made, involving interviews with students asking them if they would continue to wear masks.

“Some people said that they were going to continue to mask because of a family member at home, (or) for safety,” MacInnis said. “Some students were excited to show off their face and be able to interact with other students without face masks.”

“We wanted to be able to show that ‘mask optional’ does not mean ‘no masks’ or masks have gone away,” MacInnis said of the videos.

“Everything seemed to go pretty smoothly,” he added. “It’s pretty fluid. Students are more focused, I would say, on their choice ... than focusing on what other people are doing.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.