The morning of Monday, March 14, held a new moment for Davis Elementary School student Radley Verduzco.

As she exited her mom’s minivan, the 6-year-old was stepping onto campus without a mask for the first time in her academic career.

Standing alongside her sister Kenzie Verduzco, 7, Radley grinned and reached up to feel her cheeks as the morning’s cool air touched her whole face on the sidewalk in front of the school.

“We talked a lot about this at home,” Vanessa Verduzco said from the driver’s seat as she prepared to head to her job as a massage therapist.

“They were a little nervous,” she said of her daughters. “They said, ‘But we can wear one when we want to.’ I think they are going to love it.”

Hearing teachers at conference time earlier this month share their excitement at soon seeing their students’ expressions and hearing unmuffled words brought home the changes that were to come on this day, Vanessa Verduzco said.

Washington, Oregon and California state health officials dropped mandatory indoor masking in most circumstances as of Saturday, March 12, after data showed the rates of COVID-19 declining enough that health care facilities were less likely to be overwhelmed by patients ill with the virus.

Masks continue to be required in certain settings including health and congregate care.

College Place Public Schools has been preparing students and staff for this day, Superintendent James Fry said Monday.

Much emphasis has been placed on individual choice to use or not use masks at school, he said out, touting the district-wide messaging:

“‘Masks are optional. Respect is required. Thank you for respecting the choices of others.’”

A video made by Davis staff and students last week is meant to help families discuss feelings about masking, choices and the school’s expectations of honor, responsibility, positive participation and friendliness, whether they choose to wear a mask or not.

More than 300 students at the elementary school have only experienced school with masks on, said Vice Principal Chris Plucker.

“It’s been a tough two years on everyone. Getting back to the way things were will take time. So let’s take that time to do it right and do it well,” Plucker told students in the video.

When students arrived at school Monday, the messaging seemed to be working. As she does every day, paraeducator Kim Brown greeted students who were masked, unmasked and some asking for a mask outside the school’s main entrance.

There was no doubt this day was unusual, Brown said between calling out a friendly “good morning” to children.

“It feels really different. You feel like you’re missing something.”

About 20% of students entering the building were already wearing masks, and some approached Brown to get a disposable one.

“Usually I go through a box and a half,” she said, noting that she’d grabbed up far fewer this morning and still clutched a couple just minutes before the bell rang.

“Are you totally freaked out?” Brown asked, grinning at a student who skittered past her.

One little boy, about the height of a kitchen counter, looked up at Brown and respectfully announced: “I’m choosing not to wear a mask.”

Others sought reassurance from Brown that it really was all right to go inside without wearing a mask.

Her hearty reassurance that it certainly was and that it was a personal decision for all underscored the district’s model surrounding the change.

It also matches what the Gasparotti family has imparted to son Leo, age 7.

The second grader arrived at Davis with his father, Adrian Gasparotti, and younger sister, Clementine Gasparotti, 3.

The trio bikes to campus on most days, Adrian Gasparotti said as he helped his son lock his bike to the rack.

Asked how he was feeling about going to school without a mask, Leo responded with a laugh that his face felt kind of cold.

“He was pretty excited this morning,” Adrian Gasparotti said.

“He has a mask in his backpack, mostly because I asked him to put one in. We talked about this as a family, and that some people will wear them and some won’t. It’s OK. It’s fine.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.

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