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Coronavirus has masked Colorado students’ emotions. Teachers are trying new ways to connect.

While masks haven’t obstructed learning or teachers’ ability to forge relationships with their kids, they have in some cases slowed communication and made it more difficult for educators to keep tabs on how their students are doing emotionally and academically.

Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)
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During a typical school year — one that isn’t upended by a pandemic — Katieann Carochi greets her students with a handshake as they enter the classroom each morning. It’s more than a way for the fifth-grade teacher to say hello.

“That for me is a big gauge as to how they’re doing that day,” said Carochi, who teaches at Lincoln School of Science & Technology in Cañon City.

Carochi relies a lot on facial expression to measure how her students are doing and how well they’re understanding her lessons. She also knows how much her own expressions matter to her students, particularly as they return to a school that looks remarkably different from the one they left in the spring, when the coronavirus shut down schools statewide.

Now, as she welcomes her students to class each morning — each peering up at her with their masks in place — she swaps out a handshake for a temperature check but continues to usher them in with a “good morning,” asking them how they are and calling them by their names. It’s a new routine, one of many that Carochi has adopted.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

As teachers back in Colorado classrooms try to help their students navigate a new kind of school day, one in which many kids wear masks, eat lunch spaced a few feet apart and don’t interact with all the students they normally would, they’re finding creative ways to overcome the obstacles. While teachers say they aren’t worried that masks have obstructed learning, they are concerned that they’ve slowed communication and made it more difficult for educators to keep tabs on how their students are doing emotionally and academically.

Carochi is a proponent of masks, mostly for the reassurance they provide to some families who have been hesitant about sending their kids inside schools.

“I think that it gives families and some students a sense of safety and security about being back in an environment with a bunch of other kids and people,” she said.

Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)

There was an adjustment period for Carochi and her students. But she’s found that a positive attitude about masks is contagious among her kids. 

That kind of modeling behavior goes far to help children become more comfortable with wearing masks and seeing them on others, said Angela Narayan, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver.

“Adults obviously don’t always love wearing masks,” Narayan said, “but the more that we can do to show children that it can be comfortable and normal, the more likely they are to do it and not feel anxious or nervous about doing it.”

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Masks might be more anxiety-provoking or frightening for some very young children when they see an unfamiliar adult with part of their face covered, Narayan said, “because it gives them less information about whether that person is going to be friendly or not.”

She doesn’t believe that masks traumatize children. But wearing masks means children have to rely more on facial cues other than the mouth to understand and process positive and negative emotions. Kids have to learn those emotions and teachers and parents have to help them learn, she said.

The importance of the eyes when a smile is hidden

Masks have delayed Carochi’s ability to pick up on how her kids are responding in the classroom since she can’t immediately see their expressions or hear the inflection in their voices, clues that typically guide her in making different decisions or asking different questions.

And sometimes, masks slow the flow of a lesson because Carochi or her students have to repeat themselves. Carochi said her throat gets hoarse after projecting through her mask while her students struggle to project through their own masks.

Masks have also made private conversations with students more difficult. Carochi tries to corral a child into a space farther from other kids so that they can social distance and talk with their masks on. While speaking with students and remaining socially distanced, she also tries to kneel down to look them in the eye so they can better perceive her emotion.

It’s helpful for kids — and for the sake of building relationships with them — to be able to see her eyes since they can’t see her smile, she said.

Children play at Clayton Early Learning while wearing masks. The center created a “social story” to show students what school would look like when classrooms were open again. (Scott Dressel Matin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Devoting the first two weeks of the school year to social-emotional lessons helped Carochi build relationships with her students in spite of complications caused by masks. Cañon City School District provided educators with the time and resources, including specific lesson plans, to help teachers grasp their students’ social-emotional wellbeing after having been at home for several months. 

Those lessons were among the most important ones that Carochi has conducted with her students this year, she said, as she put curriculum on the sidelines to ensure her students were OK and had time to share something on their mind.

It’s a reflection of the district’s priority on students’ wellbeing, Carochi said.

“I appreciate that as a teacher, that (district officials) do as they say,” she said. “That’s important.”

Sarah Bergner, who teaches fifth and sixth graders at Holyoke Elementary School near the state’s northeast corner, has experienced the same kinds of challenges. A lot of communication in her classroom is nonverbal, which is important when assessing students’ social-emotional needs or their understanding of content. Without being able to rely on those facial cues, Bergner has to think about how she is getting information about her students and how they’re learning and feeling.

While the classroom dynamic isn’t all that different from previous years, Bergner has adjusted some of her methods to better serve her masked students. Her district, too, largely focused on students’ social-emotional wellness in the first few weeks of school. Bergner has ramped up a 10-second check-in called “fist to five,” in which students hold up a number ranging from a fist — zero — to five fingers to indicate how they’re doing. If there are lots of ones and twos, the educator knows something else might need to be addressed before any learning can begin.

Bergner has also focused on making her instruction both written and verbal. She uses Google Classroom as an additional delivery method so that the instructions are in front of them at the same time she is presenting information. She recognizes that students who depend on lip reading — because they’re hearing impaired or are learning from the back of the classroom — can’t lean on that strategy as they would during a typical school year.

Her most important job this fall: listening.

“Whether they want to talk about masks or they want to talk about their weekend, that’s our job,” Bergner said.

A Clayton Early Learning staff member elbow bumps a child back at school amid the pandemic. (Scott Dressel Martin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

To better help students adjust to a new routine in the classroom, Narayan, of DU, encourages parents and teachers to communicate schedules ahead of time, set clear expectations for behavior and rules, and have each day unfold as consistently as possible. All of those steps, she said, help children feel like life is back to normal “in these unpredictable times.”

Before learning resumed at Clayton Early Learning in Denver, the center invested time in creating a “social story” that walked children through what school would look like when they returned. The story included photos of teachers wearing masks. Karen Wolf, early childhood mental health liaison, encouraged teachers to smile in their masks. The muscles around the eyes move when a person smiles, so kids can tell that a teacher is smiling even if the bottom of their face is covered.

Wolf hasn’t sensed stress among students because of masks, apart from those with sensory challenges. For kids who have hearing impairments or who struggle with speech, Clayton Early Learning has ordered a small supply of masks for teachers with clear plastic around the mouth so that those students can read the teacher’s lips.

The center has also tried to set kids up to know what to expect each day, as it always has. The consistency and predictability that teachers are creating for children is the foundation for building trust, which is then critical for building healthy relationships, Wolf said.

“All of that can happen wearing a mask or not,” she said.

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