Can Teachers Really Do Their Jobs in Masks?

For some kids, seeing facial cues is key to learning
By Madeline Will — June 24, 2020 8 min read
Students raise their fingers to answer their teacher Sandrine Albiez, wearing a face mask, in a school in Strasbourg, eastern France May 14.
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There’s a lot of uncertainty about how schools will eventually return to in-person instruction. But in many places, teachers will likely be encouraged—or required—to wear masks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all school employees wear cloth face coverings, and many school and district leaders are incorporating that guidance into their reopening plans. Some states, including California and Texas, are providing millions of masks for teachers in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 when school buildings reopen. Experts say that wearing face masks can help prevent transmission of the coronavirus when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.

While teachers say they understand the safety rationale, the prospect of wearing a mask while teaching still feels daunting for many. Will it be comfortable to teach and talk for up to eight hours in a mask? How will wearing a mask affect instruction, especially for young children and English-language learners? Will a face covering make it difficult to form relationships with a new group of students?

“I just cannot imagine trying to build rapport with kids who can’t see two-thirds of my face,” said Janet Hall, a 7th grade teacher in Oklahoma City. “When you’re trying to get to know kids, and they’re trying to get to know you, body language is a big part of it, and that includes facial expressions.”

Hall’s school district, Bethany public schools, is providing all employees with filtered cloth masks that are in the school colors and feature the school emblem. Teachers aren’t required to wear them, Hall said, but she will: She’s 61 and her husband is 67, and she wants to minimize their risk for serious illness.

But Hall has purchased two clear plastic masks from Etsy to wear for the first few weeks of school that will allow her students to see her mouth. She’s worried about those masks fogging up or being too hot, and she’s not sure if they will protect her as well as the filtered masks—but she thinks it’s the best option for the early days of school.

“I don’t think [an opaque face covering] is appropriate when kids don’t even know me yet,” Hall said. “Teaching middle school, sometimes I’m rather silly—it’s more important for them to see my face and get those visual cues.”

More than half of educators who responded to an EdWeek Research Center survey on June 17 and 18 said their districts plan to require employees to wear face masks. Thirty-six percent said their district would require students to wear masks.

Sixty-two percent of the teachers, principals, and district leaders who responded to the survey said they were somewhat or very concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction. And 29 percent of educators said they have a physical condition that puts them at high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. (The CDC says that those older than 65 are more susceptible to serious illness, as are those with asthma, diabetes, lung or heart conditions, and those who are immunocompromised.)

For those teachers, face coverings are a key part of feeling safe enough to go back to school.

“I still believe that safety should come first, and the risks outweigh [the negatives of] wearing a mask,” said Nancy Barile, a high school teacher in Revere, Mass., who is 61 and plans to wear a mask to protect herself and others. “As uncomfortable and unpleasant as it’s going to be, it just needs to be done.”

Learning Language

Certain groups of students will be more heavily affected by not being able to see their teachers’ faces. Experts say students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have autism benefit from seeing facial expressions.

For students who use American Sign Language, “they will miss out [on] a lot of communication and language cues,” Francisca Rangel, a K-2 teacher at Kendall Demonstration Elementary, a Washington, D.C., private school serving students who are deaf and hard of hearing, said in an email. “ASL relies heavily on facial expressions and mouth movements for many grammatical cues.”

Also, English-language learners tend to watch their teachers’ mouths closely to distinguish between words or sounds that are similar, said Heidi Faust, the director of learning and engagement for TESOL International Association.

“Your English-learners are going to pay a lot more attention to you than students who already understand English and can conceptualize what’s happening,” she said. “It’s definitely going to be the most impactful on your newcomer students and students with entry English, who rely so much more heavily on non-verbal cues. The more they can comprehend, the less of a barrier the mask will be.”

Masks will be particularly challenging during pronunciation lessons, when students need to see the position of the tongue and lips, she said.

Elizabeth Emmons, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Pembroke, Mass., taught English in South Korea during the H1N1 pandemic. She was required to wear a mask then, and it made teaching difficult, she said.

“When you’re teaching language, especially to a student who’s learning it as a second language, you rely so heavily on their oral language input, and when you put a little barrier in between that, it’s almost impossible,” she said.

Now, she’s considering creative workarounds for the fall. She might record a video of herself pronouncing words or making sounds at home, and then play that for her students in class. She also thinks having access to a microphone in class would help her students better understand her voice through a mask.

She’s considering making her own masks with clear plastic windows to wear. Those masks would be great to use with older students, she thinks, but she’s worried that younger students will find them jarring or upsetting: “It is kind of surprising to just see a mouth,” she said.

‘Eyes on My Mouth’

Still, early-childhood educators are concerned about how wearing cloth face coverings will affect all their students’ learning.

“As a kindergarten teacher, I do a lot of modeling,” said Belinda Williams, who teaches in Franklin, Ind., and is planning to wear a mask in the fall. “I rely on the children to look at my mouth. I say, ‘Eyes on me,’ all day long; I say, ‘Eyes on my mouth,’ and say something and have my children repeat it. What that’s going to look like [with a mask on], I do not know.”

Williams is particularly concerned about phonics and phonemic awareness instruction. She recently went through two weeks of professional development with the Orton-Gillingham approach, which is a multisensory way to teach early reading. A major focus in the training centered around having children watch her mouth.

Teachers model the correct tongue placement and mouth formation when sounding out letters and words, Williams said. The Orton-Gillingham approach has teachers use hand motions near their mouths when teaching vowels. For example, when sounding out the letter “o,” she will take her finger and circle her mouth.

“They’re going to have to see me do that to learn those sounds,” she said.

Williams’ school district told her that she must wear a mask when she’s close to students, which will be most of her day. But for phonics lessons, Williams plans to stand at the front of the room and take off her mask so students can see her mouth moving. She might also hold a camera to her mouth, and project it onto a screen so kids can get a closer look.

“I’m not going to allow what’s going on in this world stop me from being the best teacher I can be,” she said.

Other Options

Not all schools will require their teachers to wear masks while teaching. In Hawaii, the state’s health department has recommended that students and teachers wear face coverings outside of the classroom, like in hallways or common areas. But Dr. Bruce Anderson, the director of the department, told news station KITV4 that he isn’t recommending that teachers wear masks in the classroom because that could negatively affect young children’s development.

“Facial recognition is very important as you develop, and expressions are important. [They’re] social cues that everyone needs to know, but kids in particular,” he said.

In other places, teachers will be wearing clear face shields, which cover the entire face. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recommended that teachers wear face shields in its guide for school reopenings, and the Illinois State Board of Education noted in its guidance that shields would better allow teachers to convey facial cues to their students. The Texas Education Agency is providing 1 million face shields to school staff, and the California Department of Public Health is providing 2.4 million face shields for teachers and childcare providers. (Both departments are also providing millions more disposable and cloth masks.)

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said local county officials will determine how to distribute the face shields, but priority will probably be given to elementary schools, Head Start programs, speech language specialists, and special education teachers.

Lisa Tiernan, a high school history teacher in Perris, Calif., said she’s not yet sure if she’ll receive a face shield from her school—but if she doesn’t, then she plans to purchase one herself. She thinks it would help her students who are hard of hearing monitor her facial expressions, and it would keep her voice from getting muffled under fabric.

“I want them to be able to hear me clearly without having to yell through my mask,” she said. “Yelling also puts out more respiratory droplets.”

Also, she added, “I talk all day when I’m in a classroom. [A face shield] would just make it more comfortable for me.”

Experts say the benefits of face shields are that they protect the entire face, including the eyes, and they are easy to clean and disinfect. A 2014 study found that face shields could reduce a user’s viral exposure by 92 percent when worn six feet away from someone coughing.

However, there have been no large-scale studies that measure the effectiveness of masks versus face shields in preventing transmission of the coronavirus. And unlike with face masks, which are proven to help protect others when an infected person wears one, there’s no research on how well face shields can contain an infected person’s viral transmission.

Some public health professionals have recommended that face shields should be worn in conjunction with masks. Meanwhile, the CDC’s guidance for schools did not mention face shields, which are also more expensive for districts to buy in bulk than cloth or disposable masks.

Staff Writer Daarel Burnette II contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Can Teachers Really Do Their Jobs in Masks?


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