OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Students strolled through the halls, worked on homework in study hall and chatted with teachers. It was a normal Wednesday at Old Orchard Beach High School except for one thing: Most students, faculty and administrators were not wearing masks.

“It’s crazy to see everyone’s faces for the first time,” said Molly Nason, a junior sitting maskless in a large assembly room for study hall on Wednesday morning. Nason is in her first year at Old Orchard after transferring from Noble High School in North Berwick.

Wednesday marked the first day in about two years that masking is optional for many schoolchildren across the state.

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration announced last week that the state’s school masking recommendation would transition from mandatory to optional as of Wednesday. Many school districts quickly dropped their mask mandates. Portland’s schools are waiting a few more days and will adopt the state’s mask optional policy starting Monday, the district said.

Junior Molly Nason sits in a study hall at Old Orchard Beach High School. Nason transferred to the school from Noble High School for her junior year, partly because she didn’t think Noble was taking the necessary precautions to keep students safe. But on Wednesday, she said, “It feels good to see everyone’s faces now.”  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At Old Orchard Beach, most students and teachers took advantage of the new mask optional policy, excited that after wearing masks in school for so long, they could roam the halls and sit in class mask-free, hoping that things will continue going back to normal. Not all, however, chose to unmask. Some students said they plan to continue to wear masks to protect themselves and family members at home.

Nason said masking made it a little harder to get to know people at her new school. “Without being able to see people’s facial expressions you miss a lot of that human interaction when you first meet,” she said. “It feels good to see everyone’s faces now.”


Teachers showed similar enthusiasm for the mask-optional policy.

Stephanie Moutsatsos, a study support specialist at Old Orchard who also is the year book adviser and helps put on the school prom, said she plans to capitalize on this mask-free time by taking as many photos of students without masks as possible for the yearbook before a production deadline on March 21.


“We’re going to try to take weeks worth of pictures before deadline,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot of work.”

Moutsatsos hopes the mask optional policy will stick and that students will be able to have a real prom this year, one without masks and with dancing. Last year the school put on a hybrid prom. She said the masks were a little bit of an outfit damper last year. “It’s hard to coordinate a paper mask with a sequin gown,” she said.

Cam Ouellette, a junior at Old Orchard Beach High School, laughs as he sits at a table with fellow students in a 21st Century Career prep class on Wednesday morning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Brooks Bowen, a first-year teacher at Old Orchard who has been in the field for 22 years, already feels like he can communicate better with his students. “People don’t realize how much communication goes through body language,” Bowen said.


But not everyone at Old Orchard is ditching masks just yet.

Senior Kellen Zecchinelli plans to continue wearing his mask in school for at least the next few months, until the weather gets warmer. He is hoping his decision will help protect a young nephew who cannot be vaccinated and other members of his family.

“It was a hard decision,” he said. “I want some normalcy for my senior year, but I don’t think it’s time to not wear a mask.”

He said he’s been getting some glares, and that it makes him uneasy. He doesn’t want people to think that people who are still wearing masks are extremists, but said he plans to stick to his decision.

Senior Kellen Zecchinelli decided to wear a mask to Old Orchard Beach High School on Wednesday morning despite the lifting of masking requirements by the school. “We are not quite there yet. It is a little too soon,” said Zecchinelli, who wants to protect a young nephew who cannot be vaccinated. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


Alex Nguyen, a junior who also decided to keep wearing a mask to protect his family, including a 4-year old sister, said he hasn’t heard anything from other students about his decision. “They don’t mind,” he said. “They don’t want to wear a mask, that’s their thing, I have my thing.”


Students said that although they worry that another change to mask guidelines might be lurking around the corner, they’re taking things one day at a time. “Masks will probably come back,” sophomore Aiden Hubert said. “It will be annoying, but not a big deal.”

Old Orchard Beach Superintendent John Suttie said following the state guidelines and making masks optional was a straightforward decision.

“We follow the Department of Education recommendations,” he said. “We have from the beginning. It would be weird if we deviated now.”

Not all Maine public schools have followed state recommendations as precisely as Old Orchard Beach. Some districts have had optional masking all year long, others dropped masks as the omicron wave petered out, and many ditched masks earlier this week or last week following the release of new guidelines.

As school districts around the state dropped mask mandates, Portland Public Schools had said it would wait until the medical professionals who have advised the district throughout the pandemic had time to assess case numbers following school vacation last month. The district also said it would hold off updating the policy until warmer weather allowed for increased outdoor time.

But the district changed course on Tuesday, adopting a mask-optional policy indoors starting Monday. The district also is making outdoor masking optional, allowing increased visitor access and dropping indoor capacity limits.



Meanwhile, all signs continue to point to a continued decline in infections and hospitalizations in Maine.

The Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 182 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday. Because the state has now cleared the massive backlog of positive tests that had thrown off the state’s official case count for months, the number of new cases is a more accurate reflection of current conditions. It does not include at-home tests results or people who have been infected but did not get tested.

And COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to decline Wednesday, with 131 individuals now hospitalized, including 29 in intensive care. The overall number of inpatients has plummeted 70 percent from the 436 patients hospitalized on Jan. 13 at the peak of the omicron surge.

The state did not report any additional COVID-19 deaths Wednesday, and instead removed two deaths from its count because officials determined they did not meet the criteria.

Since the pandemic began, Maine has recorded 231,469 cases and 2,136 deaths.

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