Masks or computers a losing battle for Michigan schools

by | Aug 16, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 1 comment

I work with kids. A lot. Many of them don’t speak English. The best tool I have, when we need to communicate, is the three or four inches between my nose and chin, and the two or three inches between theirs.

If they don’t understand something, I push up a smile and their smile usually follows. If I see them sitting alone, a frown on their face lets me know if they are upset or just daydreaming.

Teeth, lips, observing the formation of words with the tongue and jaw, are all integral to the learning process for young children. Which is what concerns me (among many things) about a return to school during COVID-19.

In an environment where teachers are constantly losing needed supplies, they now lose the mouth. If school is conducted in person, the lower half of a teacher’s face will always be masked, and in many cases, so will the students’.

This will be a major problem. They say “the eyes are the window to the soul,” but that’s for lovers and painters and Shakespearean characters.  When it comes to teaching kids, especially young kids, a smile, a frown, a laugh, a scowl, are much better indicators of what’s really going on.

And thanks to masks, we won’t be able to see them.

“I just cannot imagine trying to build rapport with kids who can’t see two-thirds of my face,” a seventh grade teacher in Oklahoma City told Education Week recently. “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.”

Teaching is an art

Now, this is not a cry to eliminate masks. They are needed tools to control this insidious virus. But they are more than just a hampering of the learning process — they are a barrier.

So, too, however, is remote learning. Yes, under this approach, students can see the teacher’s face, but the disconnect of a computer screen can make it feel as if that face is a million miles away.

When I teach kids, I always circle. I never stand still. I get close to them, lean in, tap them on the arm occasionally if they are drifting. I know the more arresting I can be, the less likely their minds will wander and the less likely they will be to start bugging the kid next to them.

Good teaching is often performance art. There’s a reason Shakespeare started plays with battle scenes: he had to attract the public’s attention in outdoor theaters. Pull them in with action. The deep stuff comes later.

So, too, does it often work in the classroom. But an in-person connection is critical to that kind of teaching. And once again, COVID-19 has thrown a sticky net over that process. So the learn-from-home option — while digitally connected — is being embraced as “safer” by many schools nationwide.

This means a teacher talks to a computer at home and kids on computers in their homes listen and respond back. Some schools are having the teachers go to a classroom and run a Zoom chat from there. It helps. They can move about the space, use visual props, go the chalkboard, etc. But it’s not the same for the student, who is watching all this from an 11- or 13-inch screen, or worse, an iPhone.

Nor is it the same for the teacher, who can only see the collected digital faces of 15, 20, 25 or 30-plus kids, but can’t lean over them, share a private smile with them, or easily pull them aside for an encouraging word or a dab of discipline.

So you might think this digital option even worse than the mask situation, and my pointing it out is a plea for brick and mortar schools. Not so. The risks imposed by returning in-person cannot be ignored. Already, schools that resumed early are having trouble. In Georgia, the Cherokee County School District has reported 59 COVID-19 cases and more than 1,100 students, teachers and staff quarantined.

They’ve only been open two weeks.

No good answers

“So,” I can hear you say, “if you don’t like masked learning and you don’t like digital learning, what do you like?” Nothing. There is not some wonderful alternative that we are all missing. There are simply no good answers. It’s all bad.

I suspect this is the reason why, even now, just two or three weeks from when school normally starts, it still feels as if we don’t have a clear battle plan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state legislators met Friday, the day before the deadline, to agree on a deal they said, “will give students, parents, educators, and support staff much needed support, flexibility and certainty as we approach the new school year.”

Their plan? Let the local districts decide. Which means a continued state of confusion, comparison, and dissatisfaction, no matter what your particular school selects.  Local districts will make their choices, until that choice looks like a bad one, and then they’ll likely seek to switch.

Meanwhile, the governor reserves the right to mandate certain things depending on how our COVID numbers go. So there’s that shadow hanging over the school yard.

Not to mention flu season, right around the calendar corner.

Whoever thought we’d be pining for the days when we could use our mouths to talk to our students? Whoever thought we’d desperately miss the rush to get the kids’ lunches and books together and drop them off at the school door, allowing us to get to work, albeit late? Now, for many, work is no more, and school is unrecognizable.

No good alternatives. Only patience and prayer and hope that this longed-for vaccine comes before we destroy ourselves with anger, resentment and cabin fever.

Whitmer and the legislators, in crafting their plan, said teachers, parents and students “deserve peace of mind.”

Do you feel like you have an ounce of that? 

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Theresa Ramus

    Life as we know it is sure different. If I had to agree on a way kids could go to school I think it would be better if they went 2 days a week and then had their homework and projects to do at home the rest of the week virtually. If you can home school do that. I wouldn’t send kids everyday nor is it good idea to do virtual learning strictly at home so compromise split it up and do both. Sure I have cabin fever for the north and some anger and resentment. If the virus had been taken seriously early on we may of been able to contain it. People thought of it as a hoax to get Trump out of office so nothing was done. Now look where we are at.
    Every time the Gov does a speech she always mentions all the essential workers who have worked . She always mentions the grocery workers but I work in a drug store. I almost never hear that one. I have been doing this since the beginning of the pandemic. I don’t get hazard pay or ever did. I got a one time small bonus. Teachers are paid well. Then we give laid off workers an extra $600 a week. I get less than that working. Oh boy and yet I do manage to give to charities and do the best that I can. I am forever cleaning and disinfecting at work. I watch many come in with masks below the nose. Why wear one. Dumb. I have to wear mine all day.Then there is Fall and Winter which will be a night mare with flu season and colds ect. I deserve peace of mind. I would like hazard pay, and sent letters to senators but they will give it to the teachers I guess.
    Then there is this Presidential race which i absolutely hate with their anger and rude behavior for one another. I get endless emails daily for party donations. I don’t think so. I need a donation. I need peace of mind. What if I got Covid -19 and got seriously ill next year and happened to die. Who would care. I would be just be another statistic. So I blew off some steam writing as I am tired of all of it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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