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Healthcare

How Teachers Are Reacting To Utah's Lifted Mask Mandates

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The school year is almost over but not quite. And with new guidelines from the CDC earlier this month, some districts are changing their mask policies. In Utah, Governor Spencer Cox lifted all mask mandates within schools for the last week of the year. That's coming up very soon. Stephanie Gonzalez teaches fifth grade in West Valley City, Utah, and she joins us now. Hello.

STEPHANIE GONZALEZ: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you teach?

GONZALEZ: I teach fifth grade, the best grade.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The best grade. Tell me why. Why is it a good grade?

GONZALEZ: Oh, it's just so fun. They just - they start to get sarcasm. They're figuring out who they are. I just love their little personalities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Before we get to masks, I mean, it has obviously been a very challenging year for teachers, to say the least. How do you feel about it coming to an end?

GONZALEZ: It's bittersweet. It's been the most challenging year of my career, but it's been such a unique opportunity. And I've been teaching dual modalities, so I've been teaching online at the same time that I'm teaching my kids in the class. So I have a special bond with all of my kids this year, like a bond that I'm probably never going to have with another class just because of the circumstances.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, roomies and Zoomies, as they're sometimes called.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Oh, that's great. I love that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Let's talk about this big change in policy because it's happening just at the very last minute. The students you teach are too young to be vaccinated yet. So what's your reaction to that news?

GONZALEZ: It makes me very conflicted as a teacher because I can be vaccinated - I am vaccinated - and my kids don't have that choice right now. And so making masks optional is really a hard pill to swallow at this point in the school year. We've made it through, you know, 10 months of masks, everything following CDC guidelines very strictly. And then now, all of the sudden, it's OK to take them off. And so it's very conflicting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's been their reaction to the news? Because I know my daughter - you know, she's in second grade and, boy, does she want to take that mask off.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, I've got a mixed reaction in my classroom. I've got kids that are ready to take it off and be done with it. And having this news come two weeks before we can do it is actually kind of making it harder for those kids because they know that that end is in sight. And then I've got kids that - you know, they live in multigenerational homes, and they're still worried about picking it up and transmitting it to their grandparents. And so as much as they want to take it off, in fifth grade, they're kind of thinking about the bigger picture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, do you find it a little strange that this new policy is basically only for the last few, final days left in the school year? And what was the thinking, do you think, behind doing it at that time?

GONZALEZ: So the thinking from Spencer Cox's point of view was that it will allow the kids some closure to the school year - that we'll all be able to see each other's faces. And they can finally see, you know, my smile and reactions to things. I think it's very odd that we're doing it at the end of the school year. So we'll have three school days with the optional masks. And so that's another conflicting thing - is that it hasn't been OK to take our masks off the whole year. And we've made it through the challenge. We've done it. And here we are just the last three days of school that, suddenly, it's going to be OK. So that's another kind of hard thing for the kids to understand of why, suddenly, it's OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Something that you said at the beginning of this really struck me that this is - you'll never have another relationship with your students because of everything you've been through. And I'm wondering what your message will be to them on that last day of class.

GONZALEZ: My message is going to be that they have really good heads on their shoulders. And no matter what life throws, no matter what the future holds, they're going to make the best choices because they have learned to really think beyond themselves this year. And that makes me very proud.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stephanie Gonzalez, fifth grade teacher from West Valley City, Utah, thank you very much. And congratulations on finishing the school year.

GONZALEZ: Yay.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yay.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: My pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.