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Lipstick, smiles, anxiety on a Michigan school’s first mask-optional day

Students raising hands
Wegienka Elementary students attend school Wednesday, the first day in which COVID masks are optional in the district. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

Feb. 25: New guidance: Most in Michigan can ditch their masks for now

BROWNSTOWN TOWNSHIP—On Wednesday morning, elementary school Principal Michelle Briegel put on lipstick for the first time in a long time.

She greeted students in the car drop-off line at Wegienka Elementary without a mask on. And she made it clear at the 485-student school — whose nickname is the Wildcats — that mask decisions would be treated with respect.

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“I know that one of those things that we say Wildcats are: we are respectful,” she said during morning announcements. “So it’s really important that we respect each other's choices and it is absolutely OK if you’re wearing (a) mask, or it’s absolutely OK if you are not. So please follow those directions from your parents. Have a great day!”

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Wednesday marked a new chapter at Wegienka, in the Woodhaven-Brownstown School District downriver from Detroit. It was the first day students and staff were allowed to choose whether or not to wear a mask to protect against COVID-19.

Across the state, amid falling COVID-19 case numbers, school districts are leaving the decision of whether to mask up to individual students and their families, rather than having blanket policies that have been commonplace since the beginning of the pandemic.

Principal Michelle Briegel
Principal Michelle Briegel welcomes students to school during morning drop off Wednesday at Wegienka Elementary School in Brownstown Charter Twp. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

At Wegienka, mask usage varied across the building Wednesday. In a physical education class with about 25 fifth graders, seven children wore masks. For a group of six fourth-graders filming the morning’s school announcements, there were no masks.

Media paraprofessional Lena Wilson helped the small group practice for the video announcement. She said when students were required to wear masks, there were no real issues, beside her having to remind them to “speak up louder and project your voice” for announcements.

morning announcements
Media paraprofessional Lena Wilson, far right, guides fourth graders as they record their first mask-less announcements on Wednesday at Wegienka Elementary School in Brownstown Charter Twp. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

Wilson works in the library media center where she reads to students and helps students check out books. She told Bridge she was interested to see how her students handled being maskless the rest of the day. 

“So far nothing has changed except the kids are really talkative,” she said.

As the students recited their lines for the announcement video, Wilson helped one boy recite the names of students with birthdays. 

In Sherri Burke’s third grade class, most students were unmasked, although some were eating breakfast, while they made words out of the letters that make up “I love snow.” Things seemed relatively normal but the breakfasts students eat are free to everyone: a change influenced by the pandemic after the US Department of Agriculture broadened student access to school meals as part of an effort to ensure schools reopened safely. 

Still, there are reminders of the school’s COVID-19 safety measures. Inside the front vestibule, students can still grab a disposable mask. At the start of the morning, a sign on the door reminded people that masks were required. By mid-morning, that sign was gone. Students are still required by federal order to wear a mask on school buses, but some students took them off once they left the steps.

Wegienka Elementary students
Wegienka Elementary students walk off the bus Wednesday morning on the first day in which masks became optional in the district. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

Esther Ramsey said she felt “liberated” as she dropped off her fifth-grade granddaughter at the school. She said she personally had trouble wearing a mask, which had given her panic attacks. The girl, Alaya, said she’s excited to go maskless; masks made it harder for her to hear people.

Ramsey said she has “no worries at all” about the lack of a mask requirement and “believes our immune system is amazing.”

Esther Ramsey and her fifth-grade granddaughter, Alaya
Esther Ramsey and her fifth-grade granddaughter, Alaya, at drop off Wednesday. Alaya said she is excited to not have to wear a mask at school. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

Others took a more cautious route. Jennifer Cooper walked her second-grade son, Declan, to school. She told Bridge Michigan the 8-year old will wear a mask for now even though he is vaccinated because he has a younger sister who, at age four, is too young to be vaccinated.

While COVID-19 infections are down, “we still feel that it's safer for him to wear a mask for the time being,” Cooper said. 

She said the school has done an “awesome job” and that, so far, Declan has been healthy this school year. But she is among those parents who wonder if Michigan is softening COVID-19 rules just a bit too early. 

Jenniifer Cooper and her son, Declan
Jenniifer Cooper and her son, Declan, stand during drop off on Wednesday at Wegienka Elementary School. The second-grader will continue to wear a mask for now, his mom said. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

“It just gives me a lot of anxiety with the change, we don’t know, like I said, who's wearing masks, who's not, how close they're going to be together,” Cooper said. “And with being safe for so long, it gives me anxiety not knowing what's going to happen now because it's not in my control.”

Parent Bobbie Peters said she is leaving it up to her fourth-grade son, Adam, on whether to mask. So far, the boy is choosing to wear one. 

“I’m going to let my kids choose because I really think it's their choice,” Peters said. “They know who they're hanging around…if anything, (it has) educated the kids about hygiene and about space, like if you are going to sneeze or if you are going to cough, they are very educated on what can happen when you do cough, those little droplets.”

Bobbie Peters and Adam
Bobbie Peters is leaving the decision whether to wear a mask at school to her son, Adam. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

The school also will begin allowing visitors to enter the building. Principal Briegel said she also hopes to have family nights later this semester, including events like a crowd favorite “Book Bingo.”

The school district announced it was dropping its mask mandate last week. But students had a snow day Friday and were off Monday and Tuesday, making Wednesday the first day of optional masking. One parent reached out to Briegel and expressed reservation about the mask-optional policy. The parent wanted to know how the school would support a parent’s decision to have their child masked. Briegel reassured her.

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She said managing the policy change is all about communication: through calls, emails and social media. 

Briegel said that for teachers, instructing while masked was a “learning curve,” as teachers learned how to articulate words more clearly so students could hear the sounds of letters and words. She said she hopes this mask optional rule is a turning point and that teachers will be excited “seeing the sparkle in kids’ eyes with learning.” 

“I mean, we're going to see more than their eyes,” Briegel said, “now we're going to see their facial expressions for those families that choose that.”

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