I took my two daughters to buy some new school shoes this week, and we were served by a man in a face mask. The poor guy was doing his absolute best, but I couldn’t understand very much of what he was saying, muffled as it was by the cloth. The situation was all the more awkward as I too was wearing a mask. We resorted to pointing and thumbs up and thumbs down to communicate in these constricted circumstances.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of face coverings in the fight against Covid-19, it’s hard to deny they affect human interactions. And if they impede communication during a brief visit to a shoe shop, can you imagine what they’d do in a school? As a teacher with over 21 years’ classroom experience, I think I probably can.
In Scotland already, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has signalled pupils over 12 will be made to wear them on site. Now Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure to introduce them in English schools too, when they reopen their doors next month.
Some schools aren’t waiting for an official decision, and instead have unilaterally decided to make masks and visors compulsory. But we shouldn’t pretend this will be without negative consequences.
When term begins, I’ll be starting a part-time role teaching Religious Studies at a state comprehensive school in Cheshire. I have Type 1 diabetes, which puts me in the clinically vulnerable category, and as a result I’ve been self-isolating until lately. You might expect that I’d welcome any further measures in schools that could make those like me a bit safer. But masks in a place of learning seem potentially problematic, to me and other teaching professionals.
As any teacher will tell you, communicating clearly with pupils is a key part of the job. If I’m standing at the front of a classroom, it’s important I convey my enthusiasm for whatever it is I’m discussing. I’ve stood in front of a mirror at home and practised trying to do this while wearing a mask on my face, and I’m afraid it didn’t really work.
Projecting your voice across the room is also a major tool in a teacher’s toolkit. I’m not at all sure how well we’ll fare if the sound is muted by a mask. Even if we wore clear visors, voice projection would still be inhibited (but would be admittedly better for staff and students). We are also acutely aware of other teaching and learning restrictions in place that will make the classroom a different place from what it used to be.