While most students wore facemasks at school last year, this issue has become heated and polarized in some locales. One concern is whether the practice inhibits the development of social and emotional learning (SEL).

Arianna Prothero of Education Week posed this topic to Justina Schlund, senior director at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

With the surge of the Delta variant, the need to protect students and staff from infection, illness, and death is paramount. Public health and medical experts say that after vaccines, universal masking is the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID.

So, does that strip of cloth covering the nose and mouth, and muffling the voice, get in the way of students learning about emotions? How do masks impact teachers’ ability to get a read on how their students are feeling? And does mask-wearing complicate building relationships among peers and with teachers?

Ms. Schlund is unaware of any research showing that masks have a specific or meaningful social-emotional detriment to students’ development. Whether this practice actually harms their social-emotional development is a different question than, does it make it more difficult to see one’s emotion in the moment?

From a teacher’s perspective, so much of teaching is how they are communicating with the students. Building a relationship with someone whose face is covered by a mask may take a little more effort, or different types of effort, than in the past.

There is a trade-off to not wearing masks and, presumably, that trade-off is closed schools or loved ones getting sick or dying, which would undoubtedly negatively affect students’ social and emotional well-being.

One of the things that masks allow is to resume in-person learning where students have more opportunities for in-person relationship building, which we know is also important.

Is in-person and masks better than out-of-class and virtual? Although one cannot make a universal blanket statement, it is pretty much agreed upon by most experts in the field that in-person learning is better for most students when possible.

These times present an opportunity to expand our language and awareness of emotions. Those emotions include facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, or what people may be saying through their eyes or eyebrows. We can help students tune into that type of social awareness.

Teachers are also using more physical and hand gestures to demonstrate what they are thinking and feeling, which is good for the classroom whether or not anyone is masked.

What was critically important before the pandemic—and especially now—is building a strong sense of community in every classroom. It means making time and space for students to learn about each other on a more personal level, share their interests, ask each other questions, and collaborate on projects. If we are concerned that masks get in the way of relationship building, this is an opportunity to increase relationship-building strategies.

We often talk about SEL within the school walls, but there is so much SEL going on at home and in the community. Even if students have moments where they are masked at school, they have so many opportunities to practice facial recognition of emotions and other social-emotional learning beyond the confines of school.

And, no, masks do not reduce oxygen supplies, cause carbon dioxide “intoxication,” or weaken the immune system. With the resurgence of increased infections and death rates, seeing muscle movements below the eyes is less important than staying safe for oneself and family. Masking makes sense.

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