On Monday the children will be back in schools up and down the country and that is something to celebrate. They have had a torrid time over the last year, in and out of school, observing rules about social distancing, placed into “bubbles”, constantly being reminded about cleaning their hands, and so it goes on.
Most importantly they have missed the face-to-face time with their teachers and their friends which is a crucial part of every child’s development. It is not so much about what they are learning academically that is important but rather the emotional intelligence that comes from social interaction where they learn about empathy, compassion, humility, pride in their accomplishments and develop self-awareness as well as self-regulation in their interactions with others.
“Put yourselves in the place of these children and consider wearing these masks throughout a whole school day.”
One of the new expectations, and it is important to appreciate that it is not mandatory (albeit strongly advised), is that the children should now wear face masks in the classroom as well as in the communal areas around the school. It may not seem a significant development and many would probably say it is a small price to pay for getting the children back into school, however, put yourselves in the place of these children (and the teachers) and consider wearing these masks throughout a day which probably starts at 8.30am and may go on beyond 4pm. That is a long time to be wearing a mask and how is that going to change their experience of school and what they are learning.
The Teaching Unions have certainly jumped on face masks as a major issue. I am no less concerned than they are for the wellbeing of my staff and the pupils in our care but one can’t help but feel that they are politicising the issue. It would be a travesty if the return to school became a political game where the children and teachers become pawns in their machinations and where there would be no winners. I believe the majority of teachers just want to get going again and they want the pupils in their care to be excited about coming back and to enjoy their lessons and the school community which they have missed for such a long time.
“My worry about masks being worn in the classroom is that it will undoubtedly impact on the pupils and teachers.”
When I go shopping at the weekend, which probably takes about an hour or so, I can’t wait to get my mask off again. Aside from it being a claustrophobic experience, the wearing of masks has made one of the main weekly interactions with society something altogether different. When you are taking your trolley up an aisle you are trying to work out what other people are doing; the route you might have taken, understood by others through a quick smile, or pre-emptive “thank you” as you seized an opening – these are all gone. Supermarkets have always been great places to develop emotional intelligence, at least they used to be. Classrooms are the same, at least they used to be.
My worry about masks being worn in the classroom is that it will undoubtedly impact on the pupils (and teachers); voices will be muffled, the facial expressions that convey so much (including the lack of understanding that teachers will always be looking out for on a pupil’s face) will be hidden away and let’s not overlook the research that suggests prolonged wearing of masks has a debilitating effect whether it be causing headaches, problems with concentration or fatigue.
“If a child is clearly struggling and wishes not to wear their mask then that will be fine – albeit we will probably move them closer to an open window.”
There will be a huge amount of excitement at coming back but will the wearing of masks lead to this quickly waning? When there is such an emphasis on returning to school to help with children’s mental wellbeing, we are in danger of exacerbating problems if a rigid position is taken. At my school, we will be doing the lateral flow testing on the return of the pupils and further two tests every week to ensure our community is safe. We will, of course, follow government recommendations and the vast majority of our pupils and staff will be wearing masks but if a child is clearly struggling and wishes not to wear their mask then that will be fine as well (albeit that we will probably move them closer to an open window).
It is a critical time now for the children as they return to school. Let’s make sure common sense prevails so that we serve them well. They are our future and as Nathaniel Woodard said, “We only have one chance with the education of our children, so their tomorrow must be our urgency today.” And of course, it may all change again in three weeks’ time!