Almost exactly a year to the day after students at the R.E.A.L. School in Sturtevant walked back into their school building after months of online learning, they were able to walk through those same front doors without masks on.
The school is an engineering, arts and leadership-focused middle and high school in the Racine Unified School District. RUSD schools dropped their mask mandate on Tuesday evening after a near-unanimous vote by the city council.
Earlier that day, R.E.A.L. School students said they were cautiously excited about being able to go to classes, clubs and sports practices without masks on.
"I'm so used to not seeing anybody's whole face. I'm used to seeing eyes and up," said Trinity Fenn, a sophomore. "Now, sometimes, seeing their whole face, I'm like, 'Wow, that's what you look like? Oh my God.'"
Trinity said wearing a mask has sometimes been a pain — literally. Her ears are small, which she said makes the mask dig in uncomfortably. Still, she sees the value in being cautious to slow the spread of COVID-19, especially since she lost her aunt to the disease in 2020.
"I like that there's an option to it, and you don't necessarily have to (wear it)," she said. "This is just a step closer back to normal reality."
Since Wisconsin's statewide mask mandate was struck down almost a year ago, it's been up to individual schools whether and how they want to require masks. Some, like Racine, have required that staff and students of all ages wear masks. Others required masks only of younger students, especially before the vaccine was made available to kids ages 5 to 11. Still, other districts let everyone go maskless as soon as the statewide mandate was overturned, and have stayed that way.
Milwaukee Public Schools said it's keeping mask requirements for now, though the city's mask mandate ended on Tuesday. Neighboring Wauwatosa voted Monday night to end its mask mandate. The Madison Metropolitan School District lifted its outdoor mask mandate, but is still requiring them indoors. Eau Claire made masks optional in schools weeks ago.
Joey Schroeder, another R.E.A.L. sophomore, said he was looking forward to ditching his mask, and for others to be able to do the same.
"Especially for teaching, they have such a hard time communicating with us while presenting the information," he said. "Without the mask is going to be a lot better."
None of the students enjoy wearing masks. Huffing and puffing through gym class with masks on was a particular frustration. Aniyah Richmond, a junior, wears glasses, which do not mix well with masks.
"It's always fogging up, no matter how many times you adjust it," she said.
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Despite the frustrations, some students are wary of the policy change. Junior Delisa Evans, who had an exhausting case of COVID-19 earlier this year, said she's worried about its consequences.
"I feel like we still need to be safe. Tere still is a worldwide pandemic, COVID is still a very real thing, people are still catching COVID, and it's very deathly still," she said. "I hope that (officials are) being safe about it and they're not just trying to feed us with 'It's all right, guys, take down your masks.'"
All the students worry about a spike in cases significant enough to shutter schools again.
"It took a big toll last year, because no one was near anybody, and so you were sort of sectioned off at your own house," said Malea Pina, an eighth grader.
Trinity, the sophomore, said she struggled to stay motivated in virtual school.
"It really made me not want to go to school, knowing that just all I had to do was wake up and open my computer," she said. "I really wasn't learning anything virtually because I'm a hands-on kind of person. I need the teacher to be physically there helping me do this."
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its requirement for masks on school buses. The federal rule meant that even in school districts that weren't masking, students and drivers were supposed to wear masks on the bus — though bus drivers in Wisconsin said not everyone complied.
"I think that I would go into the future and not be afraid to pick up a mask," said Delisa. "A mask would just be something that's like, keep it with you, keep one in your purse."
Even so, the students say it would be hard to keep wearing masks consistently after the requirement drops if most of the other students in their classes aren't. Pina said students often have to be reminded to pull them up or wear them correctly, so she's expecting that anyone keeping them on will be in the minority — which makes it difficult. Aniyah, one of the juniors, said it would be uncomfortable to be the only one still masking.
"I feel like it'll just be embarrassing to be the only one in the room wearing one," said Aniyah.