What Happens to the Experience of School When The Masks Come Off
I could not remember exactly when I ordered my first protective mask, so earlier today I looked it up and discovered that it was almost exactly two years ago: 21 March 2020.
Back then, I’d never purchased - let alone worn - a mask before. Consequently, the list of options that Amazon presented to me was pretty daunting; until I came across a model that boasted a “breather value + 40 paper filters”. I was sure that was what I needed. So, with just a couple of clicks, I purchased a pack of 10, closed my laptop, and started praying I’d stay alive long enough for them to arrive from somewhere in China.
I cannot either remember exactly when I wore my first mask in public. But I know that my first Amazon order was entirely impractical and made me look more like a disorientated scuba diver than someone heading out to the local grocery store. I also recall an odd feeling of embarrassment at showing up in front of my colleagues with a piece of cloth over my face.
Since those early days of the pandemic, however, the mask has become ubiquitous. Whether in the form of a colourful fashion item that went with whatever we were wearing, the regular surgical mask, or the heavy-duty and far less comfortable KN95, almost all of us got used to leaving the house each day with a couple of spares in our pocket.
Then, just like that, on Monday 7 March 2022, masks were no longer required in Belgian schools. Students and their teachers had been back on Campus for some time now, but now their smiles were back as well for everyone to see.
But it got me wondering. What was the experience of school, now that faces were back on show? And what were some of the most important lessons that our students had learned throughout the pandemic?
I decided to ask my children, together with some of their friends, and here are 10 things I learned from their responses.
Not surprisingly, the absence of a mask is a sign that we are returning to “normal”. Even if the pandemic is not over, it offers a signal of hope that we are moving to a new and better phase in our lives.
Wearing masks in the classroom had made it difficult to concentrate and much harder to communicate. Sometimes, they said, it was just easier not to talk at all. In one case, masks also had a tendency to induce regular headaches.
There was also a link suggested between taking away the mask and empathy. As one student explained: Seeing everyone's facial expressions helps us better understand what other people are feeling and also helps us react better.
While it still feels “strange” to suddenly see everyone’s faces - in many cases for the first time - taking away the masks has literally made people feel happier. Seeing other people smile - seeing teachers smile - makes everyone feel better.
Talking of teachers, it was unusual for students to finally see how they look. Many mentioned that they had never seen the lower half of their teacher’s face before last Monday. One student summed it up: Now when I speak to my teacher, it is like talking to someone I actually know.
Teachers appear to be less strict without their masks. It is also easier to “read” a teacher and determine whether they are being serious or more laid back.
Along with online school, masks were sometimes seen as a barrier to a more extroverted and socially connected life. As one student explained: Being at home, wearing a mask, online school - brought me back into my small comfort zone which at times must be pushed and it enhanced the more introverted side of me.
Masks shouldn’t disappear from school altogether and should continue to be used when people are feeling unwell. In the same way, they added, online assessments and Zoom-based parent-teacher conferences should stay forever.
Many newer students mentioned that they had never experienced the school without a mask. They added that it’s like they are now experiencing the school again for the first time.
Finally, there was mention of the many important life lessons learned throughout the pandemic: learning to rethink priorities in life; learning to be more independent; the importance of family; a deeper appreciation of the gift of school; and the importance of living in the moment.
Coincidently, I heard another story this week about a student in another school that decided to keep their mask on for the time being. When asked why they had taken that decision, they explained that they were still waiting to have their braces removed.
For some of us, due to braces and other reasons, this moment of “revelation” has not yet come. Whenever it finally does, however, the smiles will be worth the wait, and it will become increasingly clear, I believe, that our children will have learned far more in the past 800 days than we’ll ever know.