By Alice E. Gerard
The lifting of the mask mandate in schools on Grand Island was greeted by a mixture of emotions from families of students, ranging from joy to fear. This reporter posed a question in social media to get an idea of how the community felt about the lifting of the mask mandate, nearly two years after the spreading COVID-19 pandemic forced lockdowns, the closures of schools and businesses, and the start of virtual learning.
Meg Jaeger-Blinzler, whose daughter is a student in a Grand Island school, said, “I’m pleased that we have come to the point where we can do this with confidence. My child is hearing impaired, and masking at school was especially challenging for her. I’m pleased with how our district has handled this: Thoughtfully and without allowing pressure from vocal opposition to sway them from doing what was right and necessary.”
The length of the restrictions was an issue, said Jen Ashley. “Masking was only supposed to be a short-term fix to long-term solutions.”
For children with hearing impairments and learning disabilities, being able to see their teachers’ faces has been a serious issue throughout the pandemic. According to Meg Jaeger-Blinzler, whose daughter started an intensive program of speech therapy to help her “learn listening and spoken language” at the age of 4 months at an early intervention clinic at Buffalo Speech and Hearing, “Lip reading is an important part of communication for kids with hearing impairment, and even more so for those with cochlear implants. Since my daughter was born with profound hearing loss, she had no access to sound until she was 18 months old, so reading lips is how she first learned to understand language. The brain of kids who are hearing impaired develop differently and, when they get implants, their brains need to figure out what sound is; so, having everyone around her masked cut that input out. Kids with hearing loss struggle with understanding and have major listening fatigue while trying to understand what is going on in the classroom without those cues.”
“My son is also hearing impaired,” said Michelle Chalupka. “He has bilateral cochlear implants, but also depends on lip reading. This has been extremely challenging for him. I wish they lifted the mask mandate a long time ago. The teachers tried clear masks, but they just fogged up. Of course, his speech teacher just notified me last week that he's behind in comprehension. I wonder why. I understand the teachers and schools are trying the best they can, given the circumstances, but he really relies on lip reading.”
“The problem with hearing impaired kids isn’t with themselves wearing masks,” Jaeger-Blinzler said. “It’s the people around them. Lip reading is a huge language input for cochlear implant kiddos. Their brains develop differently when they get access to sound. Visual inputs generally take priority in the processing over the sound they get. So, exempting them from wearing masks wouldn’t really matter. (It was) definitely a tough situation. So relieved they will finally be able to get that input!”
Nichole Becker added that she and her kids were “thrilled. Especially with their health issues and learning disabilities! The masks were challenging, and we will not miss them.”
Ricky J. Lucas said, “I am very happy that it's finally been lifted. My 6-year-old has had speech therapy since he was 3 years old. The first year of the pandemic, they stopped in person and he had his speech therapy on Zoom. That was terrible; you can't have speech therapy on Zoom calls! Then the mask mandate started. How is one supposed to have speech therapy when my son and therapist both were wearing masks? And his therapist said he got a tad worse, didn't improve in two years, so, yes, the wife and I are very happy about the mask mandate being lifted.”
Some students and school personnel missed seeing facial expressions. School bus driver Lori Stirrup Digati said, “I’m so excited to see my children’s faces.”
“My kids are ecstatic,” said Heather Weibel. “My fourth grader said the kids in her class had a spontaneous dance party to celebrate.”
“When I told my granddaughter about no masks on Wednesday, she fist-pumped like Tiger Woods and exclaimed, ‘We get to see smiles again!’ ” said Todd Lee,
Naomi M. Lasco said that she was “thrilled” by the change. “My 8-year-old cried with excitement when I told him. We moved during the pandemic. He has never really bonded with his classmates. He says it’s because he can’t see them smile.”
“I'm so flipping excited for our kids,” said Nicole Elizabeth. “Smiles all day.”
“My 6-year-old jumped up and down in pure joy, so happy!” Erin Durante said.
“So excited. My daughter started crying when I told her. She's so happy,” commented Amanda Diamond.
“The kids will be able to breathe again! And see each other's smile! It won't affect my family; we don't believe in wearing masks,” Gina Clody said.
“The change is long, long overdue. Our kids can be free again. Breathing freely,” said Carrie Ann.
Missy Saj Hoock said she is “very happy,” but that the change is “too long overdue. The damage has already been done for some of these kids.”
Colleen Cady Huff was one of the parents speaking up at almost every board meeting regarding the mandate. She said, “I am thrilled. It is about time and should never happen again.”
“I asked my kindergartner how he felt about it and if he wanted to continue to wear a mask,” said Caitlin Lawrence. He said, “ ‘No. If I feel sick, I’ll just stay home.’ Out of the mouths of babes.”
Natalie Polisano Neumann said she was “very happy. I have a junior in high school. He never complained, but I’m glad to see our numbers showed we could have this change.”
“My 5-year-old was so happy when I told him!” said Ashley Syracuse. “These kids deserve to live a normal life and be able to smile at one another.”
Nathan Baums, parent of an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old, said he is “ecstatic.” “I could not be happier these measures have been taken.” He said his younger son last saw his teacher’s face when he was 5 years old, and commented that children need to see “teachers’ emotion, children’s emotion, learning empathy and anger. How to react to facial emotions.”
Sharlene Hall said, “Personally, we are thrilled. I understand that some are uncomfortable and, for those who are apprehensive, I hope (they) continue to wear masks – and for anyone who has underlying issues, hope there are alternatives offered. Our family is excited to have the masks removed.”
“So excited for our kids to just be kids and to be able to see each other’s faces and their teachers’ faces,” said Sara Tucker. “So much can be said through facial expressions that have been hidden this whole time. For my kids, it is like Christmas morning when they get up and see all the presents under the tree. So much excitement to not have to wear them anymore. They do understand that it is OK for others to still wear them, because that is what makes them comfortable.”
Some students and staff intend to continue to mask at school and on school buses for a variety of reasons.
“I am excited for those that are able to leave their masks at home on Wednesday,” said Gail Conschafter. “I am hoping that those that are wearing masks for whatever reason are treated with the respect they deserve. Everyone has their own reasons/health issues for still wearing a mask. Please help your children understand that and respect those that are still masking. It’s the least we can do as parents and grandparents. We do not know all the details and should not pass judgment.”
Thera Lewis said, “I wish someone had given this reminder to people who attacked those of us who chose to go mask free. So many instances of people screaming in my face, and wishing death on me and my family.”
Dani Sky described her concerns. “As a parent of an immune-compromised child, I am happy that the mandate has been lifted. Masks should have never been forced. But, at the same time, I do hope people make the choice to wear them still when appropriate, as there are more germs than just COVID, and, while they may not be deadly to you, they are to others. My daughter would love nothing more than to be able to return to school, but now I worry, not of germs, but that she will be bullied for wearing a mask. Whereas, before COVID, she was ‘unique,’ and it was a learning experience every year for her classmates on why she had one.”
School bus driver Kathy McGovern Keenan said she plans to continue to wear her mask. Explaining that she is scheduled for knee surgery on April 26, she said she was “not going to take any chances catching anything, so I will be wearing a mask driving the school bus ‘til April 25. I’m vaccinated and boostered, and I don’t mind wearing the mask. I just need to stay healthy to have surgery.”
Karrie Ismael also expressed concerns. “My son is very nervous. He said he might still wear one. All of these restrictions have had a physiological impact. Even for me, the thought of crowded events is still scary. Mask or no mask.”
“My son told me today that, unless he is in physical education, he plans on wearing a mask to school. I have to wear a mask while at work, and I will continue to wear one when I am out shopping. They don’t bother me at all,” said Alaina Swain.
“As my littlest still cannot get vaccinated, my son is still wearing his for the time being,” explained Stephanie Watts. “He was upset because of how big of a deal it was made in his classroom yesterday until we reminded him we still have one itty bitty at home that is counting on him. I'll keep doing what I've been doing and keeping an eye on infection rates to make a decision. He was mask free at summer camp when the risk was next to none, and probably will be again soon; but I'm giving it a few more weeks. He's never personally given someone a hard time who decided to go without, so I'm hopeful that he is met with the same grace.”
“Regardless of decision on masks or no masks, we parents must teach our children respect for their peers choices,” said Jen Ashley. “Our children bore the most throughout this entire pandemic. We forced them to sacrifice more than any adult. As a parent and social worker, I am thrilled that our children can start transitioning to more normalcy in school. This transition is not going to be easy for all, and they will need extra supports as we navigate through this transition. It took two years to get us here and will take much longer to gain back what has been lost.”
“My kids couldn't care less about the masks,” said Jessica Laible Mallabar. “It did not bother them one way or the other. I wear a mask all day every day, and they don't bother me either.”
Jaeger-Blinzler said that, even though her daughter struggled with communication, “I do want to make it clear that I understand that COVID gave us special circumstances that no one really expected. I believe the district did the best they could, given what we know about this virus and the standards set by the state.
“Yes, my child had unique struggles, but, as a family, we believe in doing our part for the best of the community as a whole, so we were not in the groups that were constantly complaining and fighting the school board. We decided to lean in to the situation we had and make the best of it.”
Students who participate in performing arts now can sing and play their instruments without their masks. Michelle Lee said, “I’m especially happy for all our vocal and instrumental music kids. Being on a stage wearing tuxedos and costumes with the hot lights and then the added challenge of masks. Those kids all get a standing ovation from me.”