Educating Children in a Time of Masks

Education, Minors

By: Lisa Hoover

When it became clear that masks and online education would be a part of fall teaching this year, I know many of us in academia (and education more broadly) discussed potential challenges for accessibility when teaching with a mask. But as an academic librarian who is childless, I didn’t think about the broader potential impacts of mask wearing, or online learning, on children trying to learn early literacy skills. 

Masked child engages in a science experiment.
Image by Vlad Vasnetsov from Pixabay

Recent news coverage and professional discussions have raised questions about emotional literacy, language development, reading literacy, and communication, among other issues related to childhood education in a time of COVID. 

Brookings points out that masks make it difficult “to read facial expressions” and that “young children look for emotional cues from caregivers to interpret novel or potentially threatening situations.” Education Week has discussed the challenges of teaching early reading in an online learning environment, which it called “a massive experiment with incredibly high stakes for an entire generation of young children.” 

One at least partial solution to the mask challenge is face shields or masks with a clear window, according to Akron Children’s Hospital. A recent Christian Science Monitor article highlighted the particular importance of this approach for those who are hard of hearing, many of whom rely on lip reading, facial expression, and imitation to facilitate communication. This can also be extra challenging for students learning a new language

“A lot of our emotional information, we display through movement of our facial musculature,” The New York Times quoted Kang Lee, professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto. Therefore, wearing masks can impede kids’ ability to develop “emotional recognition and social interaction.” Lee explained that a lot of communication is visual, not just audible. 

I don’t work with young children, but I found this conundrum fascinating – and worrisome. I’ve been seeing chatter about the “lost generation” of college students (see here and here for examples), and I think most of us recognized the unfairness for high school and college seniors who “lost” the end of their school experience, but I personally had not thought about delays in early education and early literacy. 

How can libraries help? This isn’t my area, and I honestly don’t know, but I do know libraries are facing their own difficulties. Many libraries have faced at least temporary closures, even though they “often function as a community center… that provides crucial social infrastructure for neighborhoods,” according to the Institute for Urban Research. Wired says that more than 3,000 libraries across the country had closed in March. As we in the library world know, this is particularly devastating to low income people as “libraries are one of the few places that anybody can go to without the expectation of having to buy something,” Wired quotes Darcy Brixey of Seattle as pointing out. 

Masked teacher
Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

But librarians are brilliant and resilient, and they continue to function. Virtual storytimes, among other virtual programming, have been popular (see NYPL for example, or ALSC’s guide to virtual storytime. Looking at these statements on the challenges of masks and virtually learning for young learners just reinforces for me how important these efforts are – and how amazing libraries are. As are our educators in general, many of whom pivoted to online learning almost overnight last spring. I suspect librarians will also play a fundamental role – both in public libraries and school libraries – in helping kids catch up from any deficits caused by this monumental shift in their early education. . 

This served as a good reminder for me that there are so many aspects of life that are being impacted by this pandemic in often subtle ways, and just how long the recovery may be for some of us. I expect long term impacts will depend in part on how fundamental services – like schools and libraries – recover.

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