When I see, hear and read about plans to reopen our schools across the country, I am often left dumbfounded.
As a teacher of preschool and elementary age children for almost 25 years, I cannot fathom teaching children in a mask, much less teaching a child who is wearing a mask. When social distancing is discussed and plans are shared for how to achieve it, my stomach turns — just as I know it does for many other parents and teachers in this world right now. How do I know? Because my phone is ringing off the hook with those seeking alternative education models to what they fear will be the “new normal” when their child returns to the classroom.
I have been a teacher for nearly three decades and own a school in the Santa Ynez Valley. I’ve witnessed firsthand the incredible responsibilities that come with educating children. School, at any age, is not only about learning the classroom work at hand. A teacher’s relationship with children cannot happen at a six-foot distance. Students cannot read a teacher’s non-verbal cues when his/her face is covered by a mask. A face shield is another barrier to educating. The teacher/child relationship in the best scenario cannot be exclusively about academics.
Children only learn when they feel safe. And they learn best when they feel loved. All of us, but especially children, need human touch and contact to thrive — in the classroom and in life.
My classroom experiences affirm a very simple fact: Children, especially those at a younger, developmental age, cannot and will not social distance. As soon as an adult’s back is turned, they’ll jump all over each other and want to play! The only way to prevent that very basic human instinct from happening is to use fear. And that fear will only work with the already anxious ones. What happens to the mental health of children when we use fear as a motivator? The answer is played out daily on the social media posts and pages of adults. We all are familiar with the concept of fight, flight, or freeze. Children, our greatest responsibilities and our future, never will succeed in that kind of atmosphere.
I can’t breathe well when wearing a mask and cannot easily recognize my friends. I have felt isolated and dehumanized by the mask mandates. Now, we want to demand the same of young children whose lung capacity is much smaller and who depend on facial cues for information about safety and sanity?
From the time they are born, children read social cues to learn about the world around them. They immediately can surmise, “Is this situation safe?” “What is sadness?” “The teacher gets angry when I do that.” It all comes from facial expressions. We are asking our teachers — whose job is already incredibly hard in good times — to add another barrier to achieve the same standards. Entire days will be spent enforcing social distancing mandates and using fear and punishments to keep students in compliance. Learning will be jeopardized. Relationships cannot be built. Mental health matters — I would say even more than physical health at this young, formative age.
As a society, we consistently make mental health a secondary priority. We are talking about the next generation of children whose childhood could be potentially built around this “new normal.” The masks may begin to fade away in the coming months to years, but the fear we instilled in them about germs and touch today will quite possibly last a lifetime.
This is a recipe for children hating school and feeling as if the basic human need to touch on both a mental and physical level is potentially hazardous. How will they even build their immune systems with a no-touch, sanitized world? As a trained educator incredibly lucky enough to be in the lives of these little humans, I object! Reading public health documents on reopening schools makes me ponder this important question: Have they ever met children?
Tracy Roberts has a master’s degree in Child Development and Family Studies as well as two other post-graduate trainings in education. She is the founder, director, and teacher of Acorn Village Forest School in the Santa Ynez Valley.