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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS mask-optional policy lasts one day

Emily Files
Students in an early childhood classroom at Maryland Avenue Montessori School on the first day masks became optional in MPS.

Masks were optional at Milwaukee Public Schools for all of one day.

MPS decided in March to drop its mask mandate this week, due to the timing of spring break. The change aligns with CDC guidance, which suggests masks are not necessary in areas with a low or moderate COVID-19 burden.

There was no school Monday, which means Tuesday, many students and staff didn’t wear masks at school for the first time in two years.

But MPS changed course Tuesday night, saying masks would be required again starting Wednesday, because of increasing COVID transmission in the city.

Before that decision was announced, students and staff reacted with joy and trepidation on the first day of the mask-optional policy.

At Maryland Avenue Montessori on Milwaukee’s east side, teacher Tanja Price says this school year, masks have made her job a little more difficult. Price teaches 3-through-6-year-olds.

"As a teacher of young children where I’m teaching letter sounds — that’s hard sometimes without seeing the mouth and the way that you produce the letter sounds," Price says.

Emily Files
Maryland Avenue teacher Tanja Price works on a math exercise with a student.

On Tuesday, some students got to practice letter sounds for the first time without a mask.

"This is like 'kite,'" Price's co-teacher Kim Schmidt says, while holding up the letter "k" for a student.

"Kuh, kuh," the student responds.

In Price’s classroom, some students are wearing masks and others aren’t. They seem unfazed by the change.

Price has chosen to wear a mask, because some of her students are too young to get vaccinated.

"I’m just gonna kind of follow their lead," says Price. "As they get more comfortable with the fact that we’re able to unmask, I don’t know if they’ll start doing it more, but for now we’ll just keep it on."

Another Maryland Avenue teacher, Dan Graves, decided to take his mask off when he’s teaching.

"It’s hard to manage the class as a whole when you’re wearing a mask," Graves said. "It’s just a little more challenging. I have to project my voice more, which I prefer not to do."

Emily Files
Maryland Avenue teacher Dan Graves chose not to wear a mask, saying he thought his students would be able to understand him better.

Maryland Avenue’s seventh and eighth graders, who Graves teaches, are mostly wearing masks. Seventh grader Elspeth Rudiak says it wasn’t a hard decision.

"I’ve reached a place where I don’t feel comfortable being in an indoor space without a mask, so I’m going to stick with it," Rudiak says.

The main downside of masks, according to a couple other Maryland Avenue students, is that they sometimes get too hot.

At Milwaukee Excellence charter school on the city’s north side, some middle schoolers were eager to drop the masks.

Emily Files
Milwaukee Excellence seventh grade English teacher Victoria Lucas chose not to wear a mask: "I struggle teaching with mask on. We do a lot of reading, and not everyone can hear me."

"It feels amazing," says Dalon Collins. "My face feels free."

Collins was in a study hall with other eighth graders and teacher Brittany White. White and most of the students weren’t wearing masks.

"A lot of them are excited that they’re not getting told to pull their mask up all day long," says White.

Student Taniyah Irving chimes in.

"That too — we don't have to continually get told to pull our mask up, because obviously we don't have to wear it anymore," Irving says.

When asked whether she had to be reminded to pull her mask up, Irving responds: "All day every day. I was always getting told to pull my mask up."

She goes on to name some of the teachers who were the strictest enforcers.

Another Milwaukee Excellence student, Larry Moore, isn't so sure about the mask flexibility.

"COVID is still here," Moore says. "Basically the reason it's still here is because people aren't wearing their masks — they should still wear masks."

COVID is still in Milwaukee, and increasing case numbers prompted the district to reinstate the mask mandate Wednesday.

The City of Milwaukee’s COVID dashboard indicates it is now in the “substantial transmission” category, with 58 confirmed COVID cases per 100,000 people. MPS previously stated it would revert to masks-required if there was substantial transmission in Milwaukee.

The CDC still lists Milwaukee County’s COVID burden as “low,” based on cases and hospital capacity.

>>View current MPS COVID data here

Meanwhile, masks are coming off in other places where they’ve been the norm, including airports and planes. That’s because a federal judge struck down the CDC’s mask mandate for travelers.

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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