While many students wore face masks in school last year, the issue has become incredibly heated and polarized in some regions this year.
One concern that has risen out of the debates over whether children and teachers should be wearing masks in schools is whether the practice inhibits the development of social and emotional skills.
But with the surge of the Delta variant, the need to protect students and school staff from infection, illness, and death is paramount. After vaccines, universal masking is the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID, public health and medical experts say.
At the same time, social-emotional learning is a top priority for educators right now, as many see it as vital to helping students cope with the anxiety and disruptions caused by the pandemic.
So, does that strip of cloth covering the nose and mouth and muffling the voice get in the way of students learning about emotions? How do masks impact teachers’ ability to get a read on how their students are feeling? And does mask-wearing complicate building relationships among peers and with teachers—something experts say is crucial to helping students weather the stressors thrown up by the pandemic?
Education Week put these questions and more to Justina Schlund, the senior director of content and field learning at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
How could masks affect students’ social and emotional development?
I’m not aware of any research that shows that masks have specific or meaningful social-emotional detriment to students’ development. I think, logically, part of social-emotional learning requires being able to understand other people’s emotions, and because masks cover part of the face, they probably in some ways obscure what we can see on someone else’s face in terms of their emotions, in terms of social cues that we might be responding to. But I think the question, whether this has a negative impact on their social-emotional development is a different question than, does it make it more difficult for me to see your emotion in the moment?
Are there other ways that masks could get in the way of teaching social-emotional skills, besides students not being able to see facial expressions?
I think from a teacher’s perspective, so much of teaching is how we are communicating with our students. Certainly, masks are a relatively new dynamic that students may take a moment to adjust to. To build a relationship with someone whose face is covered by a mask may take a little bit more effort or different types of efforts than in the past.
I can see for some students... [n]ot being able to see the facial expressions of their teacher could be difficult in building relationships and feeling secure in that relationship.
I think that’s absolutely true, and I think those are definitely valid concerns. But I think schools and educators are in positions where they’re weighing lots of different considerations, including student physical health, including their social-emotional learning, including their academic learning.
There is a trade-off to not wearing masks, and presumably that trade-off, of closed schools or loved ones getting sick, would also affect students’ social and emotional well-being, right?
Absolutely. I think there are lots of ways that students’ social-emotional well-being is impacted in schools that includes their physical health and their family’s physical health, and includes whether they’re seated in school, whether they’re in virtual learning. And I think the past year or so has shown us that there are lots of challenges with social-emotional connection and learning through virtual platforms. One of the things that masks allow a lot of schools and districts to do is resume in-person learning where they have more opportunities for in-person SEL or in-person relationship building that we know are also important for students.
Which is better? Is in-person and masks better than out-of-class and virtual? Or is it impossible to say?
I think it’s really hard to make a very concrete statement. There are so many different considerations depending on individual needs and local communities and what’s going on in local communities, but I don’t think you can make a one-sized blanket statement. I think it is pretty agreed-upon by most of the experts in the field that when possible, in-person learning is going to be better for most students. And so the degree to which we’re able to continue that I think is beneficial for students, socially, emotionally, and academically. At the same time, there are lots of ways, regardless of if you’re in person or virtual, with masks or without masks, to promote students’ social-emotional learning. I don’t think any of this stuff stops us from continuing to support students’ social and emotional development.
A masked teacher facing a room of masked students wants to continue imparting social-emotional skills. What are some of the workarounds? Is this an opportunity to teach new skills?
I think it’s absolutely an opportunity to teach new skills, beginning with the most basic. We have traditionally relied on a lot of facial expressions to help talk to students about what emotions mean and look like and feel like. This is an opportunity to expand our language and awareness about emotions. Those emotions include facial expressions, and they also include body language, they also include tone of voice, and what people may be saying through their eyes or their eyebrows, and helping students to tune into that type of social awareness. We’ve seen in a lot of classrooms the use of pictures and even emojis to do temperature checks with students, to create that time to share how they’re feeling and what their perspectives are.
I would say, what was critically important before the pandemic but especially now is building a really, really strong sense of community in every classroom. This means making time and space for students to learn about each other on a more personal level, to share their interests with one another, to ask each other questions, to collaborate on projects. If we’re concerned that masks get in the way of relationship building, this is an opportunity to increase our relationship-building strategies and I think our classrooms will be better for it.
You know, teachers are also using more physical gestures and hand gestures to demonstrate what they’re thinking and feeling and this might be good for the classroom whether or not you have a mask.
An important component of SEL is good decisionmaking. How could this time offer a lesson in building that skill?
I think we’ve seen this throughout the pandemic. This brought up a lot of conversations in classrooms and homes with students about what does it mean to be a good community member. And what does it mean to make decisions that are responsible and that benefit not just myself, but my family and other people? Whether or not schools are choosing to have masks on right now, it’s opened up a conversation for students to engage in around how can we keep each other safe and healthy. And what factors do I need to weigh to make those types of decisions? What are some of the pros and cons, exactly? And then, how can we all work together to make those healthy decisions that keep our community safe?
The only thing I would add is, we often talk about SEL within the school walls, but there’s so much SEL that’s going on at home and in the community as well. Even if students have moments where they’re masked at school, they have so many opportunities to practice facial recognition of emotions and things like that at home with their families, or outside on the playground. I just want to think about SEL beyond the confines of school.
A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as Do Masks Stunt Students’ Social and Emotional Development?