Today is the first day many kids in California can see each other smile or frown throughout the day.

That’s because the state just ended it’s indoor mask mandate for schools — the first time kids have had the option to lower their face coverings since most of them returned to in-person classes last year.

Grace Richards is thrilled she doesn’t have to wear her Hello Kitty mask to second grade at her elementary school in Petaluma.

“I can finally take it off and we can finally see everybody’s personality!” said Richards, smiling. “I know I’m going to be safe because we have to stay an arm’s distance away from each other while eating and drinking.”

That’s not exactly true. Richards is still at risk if she’s sitting near someone who’s infected. Social-distancing protocols do help lower transmission, though, which is why Garrett Glass is ditching his mask in his fifth grade class in San Anselmo.

“We sit, like, three feet apart,” said Glass. “So I’m not that worried about getting it in class.”

Glass wasn’t even really phased when one of his classmates tested positive just last week.

“I’m pretty sure everybody in our class is fully vaccinated, so I’m not that scared,” he said.

Yet many kids might not understand why it’s suddenly safe to show their face after being told over and over that face coverings save lives.

Some children at a playground in Oakland are pretty conflicted about the whole thing. Ten-year-old Kenley Gupta, a fourth grader at Montclair Elementary School in Oakland, doesn’t like her mask, but she’s not quite ready to toss it.

“Most of the time it’s really uncomfortable and it keeps sliding down my nose,” said Gupta. “It’s just a burden hanging over me.”

Yet, she says, it’s also scary to take off her pink, tie-dyed mask. “The virus is still simmering down so I just think it’s best to be safe.”

Turns out, the Oakland school district isn’t quite ready to part with masks either. Even as most districts in the Bay Area dropped their mask mandates on Monday, Oakland opted to continue requiring masks indoors for at least another month, and outdoors for at least another two weeks.

Gupta says there’s going to be lots of kids in each class at her school — “with no masks on, and people are going to be sneezing and coughing and there’s going to be a lot of germs.”

She’s got a point. California is still averaging around 4,000 positive cases a day, which is why 11-year-old Tabitha Kadel also isn’t ready to toss her mask. In fact, Kadel is still doubling down by wearing both a cloth and a surgical mask to her school in Alameda.

There’s good data showing masks do protect kids, though it depends on whether the mask fits, the type of mask and the variant you’re dealing with. Kadel also highlights some other pros and cons.

“I appreciate that it hides my zits,” she said. “But it’s hard to breathe when I’m running in PE and it’s difficult to see what people look like.”

Kadel is going to wait a week or two before showing her full face. She won’t be alone. State officials are still “strongly recommending” mask wearing in K-12 schools, rather than simply advising it or making it optional.

Changing mask protocols could be hard for some kids to understand.

“It’s natural for children to feel some anxiety,” said Jennifer Louie, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit specializing in kids’ mental health. “They might need time. Parents can give them reassurance and support.”

Louie recommends parents transition kids slowly by asking them lots of questions about how they feel, and says it’s important to validate whatever the child says.

“Like, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense, that you’re nervous. I’m a little nervous, too. We’ve been doing it this way for so long,'” said Louie. “And that can really help ease their anxiety. ‘Oh, the grown-ups have thought about this. It makes sense.'”

She says kids need a thorough explanation of why the situation is safer now. Parents can talk about how case rates have dropped substantially and vaccines are widely available. These are details that help kids understand it.

Louie says it’s also probably wise to warn kids they might have to put their masks back on if another variant emerges and cases surge.

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