I will be heading back to my classroom in less than two months while the world faces a pandemic, people fear for their safety, and families face hardships like they’ve never experienced before. As a teacher, I look through the CDC and state guidelines, and I hope that they are enough to keep me, my fellow coworkers, and my students safe.
One of the pinnacle parts of a safe return to school includes masks. The wearing of a mask has become a controversial topic in our country right now; however, no matter what people believe about face coverings, masks and face shields are very likely to be a part of the daily life of teachers and students as we return to school.
Depending on where you live, school districts are setting different standards when it comes to face coverings. The CDC recommends that staff and students (particularly older students) wear face coverings whenever possible and most importantly whenever social distancing isn’t possible. School districts can choose to follow (or not follow) these guidelines based on what they feel will work best for their specific community.
In my district, teachers will have to wear a mask at all times unless they are alone in their classrooms. Students are required to wear a mask whenever possible (not while eating, drinking, etc.) All students must wear a face covering on a school bus. If families are not comfortable with the mask requirement, they have the option to participate in online classes where live-streamed videos of the lessons will be available in real-time.
Personally, I am fine with wearing a mask and having students wear masks. This seems like a logical step to try to control the spread of the virus. However, my teaching will be greatly altered by their presence. Here are my main concerns:
I love greeting my students before every class with a smile and a hello. I fear that my students won’t get to feel that warmth and welcome to the classroom if they cannot see me smile at them.
Will students be able to understand and hear what I am saying? So much of verbal communication can be lost behind a mask. For teachers of language and phonics, the specific movements of the mouth need to be seen.
Learning students’ names by looking at their mask-covered faces will be challenging. If I cannot see their faces, will I be able to get to know them? How will I read their daily emotions if I cannot tell if they are smiling or frowning? I worry I might not be able to connect with them as I have done in the past.
If my school requires masks, then I have to enforce the students wearing them in my classroom. This is another task I am now responsible for and need to have clear classroom policies and consequences for masks.
As I look ahead at prepping for the 2020-2021 school year, I think about how I’m going to confront these concerns head-on. Masks are a reality, so I need to make the best of the situation for both myself and my students. Here are some of my ideas to try to address my issues:
I will ask all students to send me a digital picture of their faces (hopefully before school starts) so I can start memorizing what my students look like and their names before they are masked. I also plan to project my face to my students so they can see a smiling picture of me and know what I look like when I am mask-free. I would like to create a classroom display of student faces so we can be surrounded by smiling pictures of our classmates.
When it is necessary to see my mouth during instruction (for pronunciation purposes or for forming a sound), I will pre-record a few minutes of instruction to show the students. This way, they can watch a video of me when I am mask-free to see how to form sounds.
At the start of each class period, students can choose to rate their mood with a quick drawing of how their face looks behind the mask. They can draw a big smile if they are having a great day, a flat line if they are so-so, or a frown face if they are feeling down. They can update these throughout the class period as their moods change.
I will post signs reminding them to wear their masks at all times in class. We will all be in this together, so I’m hoping that everyone will stay on board with the policy. If not, they will be asked to leave the classroom and visit the principal. My plan is to treat masks like part of the dress code. If a student were dressed inappropriately, they would immediately need to go to the office and change. If a student refuses to wear a mask, they would need to go to the office and get a mask to wear.
Face coverings will be another hurdle teachers will need to overcome as we return to classrooms. Ultimately, the policy is there to keep us all safe, so embracing it seems to be a no-brainer. However, the implementation will be difficult for most of us. Choosing a positive attitude about masks will make the task much easier for us and our students. Hopefully, making some small, positive changes will help students feel safer and more relaxed about the situation and will help teachers create a stronger connection with their students.