Some Rotorua schools had "really high" attendance rates as students returned to the classroom on Thursday.
Several school leaders, however, reported the number of masked students was low.
Face masks are recommended in classrooms under alert level 2, but are not mandatory for teachers or students.
The first day back at school had gone "surprisingly very smoothly" for John Paul College students and staff on Thursday.
Principal Patrick Walsh said the "vast bulk of students" had returned to school despite concerns there would be a drop in attendance.
"Our attendance is really high. We thought there would be some students that would not want to come back."
However, Walsh estimated only 50 to 70 students were wearing masks out of about 1200 pupils.
"I was surprised at the number of students not wearing masks. We thought it would be a lot higher," he said.
"It is quite a low ratio. We don't make any judgement around that, it is what it is."
He said there was "a lot of anxiety" among senior students working towards completing work for NCEA.
"We have got their teachers, deans and the academic counsellor working with them on where they are at with NCEA."
Students taking technology subjects such as metalwork, woodwork, photography and art had found learning from home difficult over lockdown.
"The kids that are particularly behind are the ones that do technology. Thankfully the teachers have been very generous and have offered to support the kids at lunchtimes, after school and in the upcoming holidays."
Full school assemblies were not taking place under alert level 2, and year level masses had been cancelled.
Walsh was pleased face-to-face learning had returned.
"Distance learning was done well, but it has its limits. Particularly for teenagers that really like to connect with their friends.
"And there is no substitute for having a high-quality teacher in front of a class."
Rotorua Intermediate Principal Garry de Thierry said about 180 students were absent on Thursday. Their school roll was upwards of 700 in total, he said.
He said of those who turned up, a "very low" number of students were wearing face masks.
He said "a lot of" students who were absent on the first day back had completed online work, while others had spent time with family who they were unable to see in-person over lockdown.
"Sometimes it is about family first, and we support that."
De Thierry said face masks with the school logo had been made available for teachers to wear if they wished.
He said there was a "real buzz" among staff and students on Thursday morning. De Thierry believed this was because of friends reconnecting, along with the success of online learning over lockdown.
"There were scenes all around the school of kids seeing their mates, running up to each other. It was just great to be back at school," he said.
Like Walsh, Rotorua Girls' High School's principal Sarah Davis said "bigger numbers" than initially expected had turned up to school on Thursday.
"A lot of students have missed being with each other. And there is a lot of online learning you can do but it is even better when you get to be with your teachers."
Davis said "most of the girls" had turned up to school with masks and were wearing them in class.
However, she said fewer students were masked up when catching up with their friends during breaks.
"As they see their friends, despite our best efforts, they tend to charge up and still want to be with each other," she said.
"It seems to be in the playground, when they are wanting to catch up, it is a little bit more difficult."
The Rotorua principal said it was "so much easier" having students return to class, and she sympathised with Auckland schools who were having carry on with distance learning.
"We feel really privileged to be back at school, and to be able to carry on with a sense of normality."
John Paul College deputy head girl Madeline Potter said she had made the call not to wear a mask while at school.
"I have been vaccinated and I feel comfortable enough social distancing from people that I don't feel the need to wear one," she said.
The 17-year-old said it was important for students to respect individual decisions around wearing masks.
"Everyone is pretty respectful of each other because we know this can be so different for everybody."
She was stoked to be back at school and catching up with peers in her year level.
"It is feeling really good to be back, and be in a space where we can see everyone."
Some students had returned to school anxious about falling behind, however, she said support from teachers was available for those who needed it.
"Our school was really good with online learning, but just because it was a different atmosphere I think there is a bit of stress," she said.
"I felt a bit of stress with the overload of work. All of our teachers have been really supportive, we know we can go to them whenever."
A Ministry of Education Covid-19 bulletin issued on Tuesday said wearing a face covering at school remained a decision for individuals and whānau.
"Whatever decisions students and teachers make, it is their own to make and needs to be respected," it said.
"There will be differences of view about the use of face coverings, and it is important to show tolerance towards individual choice in this matter."
It reiterated that wearing a face-covering was not a requirement for anyone in a school setting.