Teachers say masks upset classroom communication

Published 9:52 pm Sunday, September 27, 2020

Placing an order at a deli counter while wearing a mask and standing 6 feet away can be difficult. Try teaching a class full of schoolchildren and connecting with students who are themselves wearing masks.

Teachers who in ordinary times rely on their voices to convey nuances of language and manage classroom behavior are tasked with not sounding like the trombone-produced “wah wah” of the Charlie Brown TV specials while protecting themselves and their students from the coronavirus.

To help themselves communicate with students, teachers have turned to masks with clear patches over their mouths, set up plexiglass bubbles inside classrooms so they can speak without masks, and in some cases turned to props to get across how they are feeling.

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Stephanie Wanzer, a teacher who works with special education students in Fairfield County, Connecticut, uses a stick with an image of a smile during her sessions.

“I try to be really expressive with my eyes. He’s looking at me and I’m not sure if he thinks I’m mad or happy because you can’t see my mouth smiling,” she said. “So I actually have a smile on a stick, which is bizarre, but it’s a smile like, ‘Look, I’m smiling.’”

School started virtually for Jon Resendez, a teacher in Irvine, California, but he worries about how the required masks will affect the dynamic in his 12th grade civics classes with some students now returning to the school building.

“Part of what I do as a civics teacher is to teach people to engage in civic conversations,” he said. “That has to do with seeing the person’s facial expressions, a person’s body language and sort of reading your audience, and it becomes more difficult to read your audience” when they are all wearing masks.

It also will be more difficult for student to collaborate, to do presentations and to speak with one another in class.

“I like a low murmur in the room because if the students are talking, they are thinking,” he said.

The task is especially difficult for those working with students who are deaf, hard of hearing or whose first language is not English.

“For one, the mask might muffle some sounds, making it harder for English learners to distinguish them, such as the sound for ‘P’ and the sound for ‘B,’” said Deborah Short, president of the TESOL International Association. The Virginia-based group was created to unite teachers and administrators with an interest in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

“A mask stops students from watching how a teacher forms sounds, how the lips and tongue are positioned and whether air is expelled or not,” she said.

Short said teachers can mitigate those limitations by speaking loudly and articulating well. They also can utilize videos and images to “show how sounds may be created,” she said.

Some schools have ordered face shields or masks with windows so students can see teachers’ mouths, although some have raised concerns about the plastic screens fogging up.

Wanzer said one colleague wore such a mask to work with a hearing impaired student who said it made the teacher look like the Joker and was unnecessary. The teacher was happy not to use it, she said, because the plastic material was so uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, teachers and schools have driven spikes in demand for clear masks from companies like Baltimore-based ClearMask, which began producing its namesake product in 2017 after its co-founder, who is deaf, was unable to communicate effectively while undergoing surgery while wearing a traditional mask. The company’s manufacturing team has grown from four employees to more than 250 since the start of the pandemic.

“We see a large need for early childhood education to support young children’s social, emotional, and language development, as well as specific programs for students,” said ClearMask co-founder and president Allysa Dittmar.

At the C.B. Jennings International Elementary Magnet School in New London, Connecticut, teachers are provided with carts with plexiglass that they can stand behind as they move around the classroom.

Even behind them, many teachers still keep their masks on, according to instructional coach Elizabeth Sked, who said expressive eyes go a long way to connecting with students.

“Kids and teachers are super resilient,” she said.

Belinda Williams, a kindergarten teacher at Webb Elementary School in Franklin, Indiana, said she and her students have adapted to wearing masks, along with a new routines for hand-sanitizing and social distancing. She decorated her classroom with a superhero theme and tells students they have “special powers” when they’re wearing face coverings.

“Do I wish we didn’t have to wear a mask? Absolutely,” she said. “But if it means teaching our children in person, then I will do what it takes.”