Not only did music teacher Albert “Buddy” Bader get a good look at his students’ faces on Monday, he heard their voices sing clearly for the first time — without a mask.
Even Haddonfield Middle School’s instruments were unmuffled, usually dampened by their own fabric covering. It was music to his ears.
“It was awesome. It was really cool,” Bader said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen them.”
The mandate for face coverings imposed by Gov. Phil Murphy two years ago expired Monday, leaving New Jersey’s more than 600 districts to decide whether they would continue to wear face coverings. Like many, Haddonfield decided to make masks optional for students and staff as a drop in omicron cases eased indoor mask requirements in the region and across the country. Murphy held his final COVID-19 briefing on Friday, expressing a desire to move towards normalcy.
READ MORE: New Jersey and Philadelphia end COVID briefings, underscoring officials’ desire to ‘move on’
However, some districts, including Camden, Lawnside and Newark, the state’s largest school system, have chosen to keep the mask requirement, possibly until the end of the school year. They cited low vaccination rates among students and teachers.
“We will continue to wear our masks for now,” said Valerie Merritt, spokesperson for Camden Schools. “We just want to finish the school year.”
There were obvious and subtle signs of change at Haddonfield Middle, a sprawling neighborhood school that hosts around 600 pupils in grades six to eight. A sign on the front door advising visitors to wear a mask remained an oversight on Monday.
“It’s weird but normal,” said sixth-grade student Nia Talton, 11. “We haven’t had our face out for two years.”
Principal Tracy Ann Matozzo said the majority of people in the building decided not to wear masks. About 70% of students are vaccinated and boosted, and all teachers are, she said.
“Today was surreal because of the mask coming off,” said Eloise Shields, 12, a sixth-grade student. “It’s very nice to take it off.”
Students Shields and Talton said they keep their masks handy and put them on when navigating the school’s narrow hallways or whenever they feel unsafe or uncomfortable without them.
For the first time since the pandemic, lunch was served at an entire grade level in the cafeteria, Matozzo said. Previously, classes were split between the cafeteria and the auditorium due to social distancing.
Because Monday was an unusually mild day for the season, gym classes were held outside, where students ran across the pitch. They were attending classes indoors where teachers modified their activities to allow for social distancing and give students masked breaks.
“I’m always careful, but it’s nice not having to say three to four times in class, ‘Put on your mask,'” said Bob Bickel, who plans to always wear a mask in the building.
Like music lessons, the first day without face coverings was especially important in acting lessons where students’ voices rehearsing were clearer without the masks.
Andrew Walker, 12, a sixth-grade student and saxophone player, was happy to ditch his mask and the black cover he had to put on his instrument. The cover forced him to use more air, and he said it changed the sound, Bader said.
“I can breathe better now,” Walker said. “I just feel like it’s been too long.”
A few meters away, another saxophonist, Riley Yike, 11, kept his mask just under his chin. Between sets, he lifted the mask. He has a starring role in an upcoming school performance of the musical “Annie.”
“I don’t want to catch COVID,” Yike said.
READ MORE: NJ students return for new year with mask mandate in place and schools ready to apply
It was a normal school day at Yorkship Elementary School in the Fairview area of Camden, where pupils are encouraged to wave, wink or bump their elbows, instead of banging hands, to avoid close contact. Small group lessons are limited to two students. Hand sanitizer dispensers are installed around the school.
“We make it work,” Principal Lana Murray said. “The learning is still ongoing.”
Murray said students knew Murphy had lifted the mask mandate, so he was asked why Camden students were still wearing them. She explained that locals officials thought it was necessary. A sign inside the parent center reads: “Learn from the past. Live in the present. Plan for the future.
Mikayla Jackson, 10, a fifth-grade student, said she supports the mask mandate, but said masks hurt her ears and she sometimes had to repeat her question because her teachers couldn’t. to understand.
“I just want to stay safe, but I don’t want to wear it all the time,” said Jackson, an aspiring nurse.
Merritt said there has been little pushback against the mask mandate in the district, which has about 5,800 students. About 85% of teachers are vaccinated, but only about 10% of students per building are, she said.
Third-grade student Chayla Boyce, 9, agreed that masks were a good idea.
“I actually feel a bit safe wearing the mask,” said Boyce, an aspiring doctor. “It’s easier not to catch COVID because it’s still there.”
Her literacy teacher, Sakeena Bentley, kindly asked a student to pull her mask over her nose. Bentley said she was worried about returning to the building last spring after schools were closed for a year.
“At first I was extremely nervous about getting sick,” Bentley said. “I hope that in the near future we can resume business as usual. Until then, if we have kept it, we must keep it.