Fears and questions about the « non-negotiable » wearing of masks 8 hours a day in secondary school

At the start of the 2020 school year, high school students and teachers will have to wear masks in class for 8 hours a day, even though there is no scientific, social or political consensus on this measure. Shouldn’t the pedagogical, social, psychological and democratic implications of this situation be the subject of a broad citizen debate? Kairos relays here the legitimate doubts and concerns of parents. 

Sociologists and psychologists affirm it: the mask will transform our interactions and modes of sociability. Facial expressions allow us to adjust our behaviors according to our appreciation of the emotional state of the other: this system of regulation would have the ability to reduce conflicts and increase social cohesion(1). A system of regulation that is not innate, but that is also learned in the public space, especially at school during adolescence. The mask makes us invisible, indiscernible, undefined, it depersonalizes us. In the street as in the playground, it makes us isolated, solitary atoms, preoccupied with our individual bubble. It imprisons us, cuts us off from others, prevents us from making new acquaintances: how can we sympathize with someone whose face or emotional reactions we cannot see, when we must also respect a social distance, and knowing moreover that the mask is intended precisely to frighten by reminding us of the presence of the virus? 

Until when?

Masking one’s face during adolescence involves an additional stake: one can imagine that certain young people will feel a relief to hide their shyness, their acne, their braces… But it is a vicious circle that may be set in motion! Coupled with the loss of proximity, physical contact, touch — fundamental for the psychic construction of young people and the preservation of an emotional balance in the less young — the mask isolates and increases solitude. Some will say temporarily. But for how long? « Many months » advocate some of our experts, even two years, if we believe the current WHO forecast. But who can guarantee its temporary nature, when the phenomenon seems to be well established in Asia and many voices are trying to convince us of the more « reasonable » and « ethical » character of this new norm? 

Whatever the duration of this episode, it will affect the representation of the world and the emotions of young people in the process of construction. And that’s not good news, because in less than six months, psychological problems have already increased in our country and elsewhere, and depression among the young — and the not-so-young — could soon become a groundswell(2).

Masked pedagogy

Furthermore, what is the situation, from a pedagogical point of view, of the obligation to wear a mask in class? Taking the course while masked means that the student’s understanding of what is being said is impaired, that the teacher’s lips cannot be read to improve understanding, that the student’s emotions are not communicated through facial expressions, that the student loses information about the teacher’s and classmates’ emotions, and that a significant part of the student’s non-verbal communication of difficulties or interest is lost. For the teacher, wearing a mask implies the loss of the reinforcement of his message through his facial expressions, the disappearance of the visual perception of comprehension problems and of the interest of the students on their faces, the impossibility of exchanging smiles, an increased difficulty in creating connivance, of the affective link and consequently a reassuring environment favourable to the construction of learning(3)Finally, the obligation to speak loudly all the time at the risk of overexerting one’s voice (a common pathology in the teaching world). Do we expect actors to try to convey meaning and emotion while masked? Would we go to see such films? Our journalists and presenters (who do not hesitate to present the detractors of the compulsory wearing of masks as conspiracy theorists, followers of Trump, supporters of the extreme right or radical left, anti-vaccine, anti-5G, etc.) are not afraid to take a stand.(4)), argue for their part that it would be « far too anxiety-provoking » to offer a masked face to viewers: « Masked presenters would indeed send back an image devoid of any humanity ». And not masked teachers? 

How can our political leaders be so out of touch with school reality? Most of them (experts as well as politicians) take off their masks when they speak publicly! It is true that some « pro » advice has been given by courseticians: « Teachers will have to rely on movement and voice (…) this is a real challenge!(5) « . Except that a theorist is not a practitioner. And calling the required adaptation a « challenge » (a term that is highly valued in our culture, according to which only the lazy and incompetent are not capable of meeting a challenge) by providing pseudo-solutions has a significant perverse effect: people outside the world of education may think that it is only a question of will and competence on the part of teachers, who are already widely perceived negatively by a part of the population.

The argument of the Flemish Minister of Education, Ben Weyts (N‑VA, by the way), is that the fear of some teachers, parents and children must be taken into account. It is therefore an emotion shared by a certain percentage of the population (an emotion, legitimate and useful in certain circumstances, but which, it must be recognized, is also partly the result of discordant and anxiety-provoking communication strategies and policies for months) that dictates a measure that will impact the life, psychic construction, social integration, learning and world view of tens of thousands of adolescents. And this against the opinion of the task force in charge of assessing the pediatric risk which, on August 12, advocated « the rational use of the mouth mask for older children (+12 years) as generally recommended (e.g., when not in the bubble of one’s class or grade, such as when arriving at school or moving through the hallways). According to the WHO, children aged 12 and over « should especially wear a mask when a safe distance of one meter cannot be guaranteed ».

Guaranteeing this distance would not be impossible. We could — we still can — turn this crisis into an opportunity to reform the school system as pedagogues are calling for: splitting classes, organizing work in small groups, equipping students with school materials to improve the possibility of working at home, moving to the inverted classroom and active pedagogy, moving forward on the issue of school rhythms. No: as a unique measure, the mask is imposed, an ostensible sign that the politicians and the FWB do not remain inactive, without insisting on the exceptional character that this measure should have, without underlining and preparing to face the psychological and pedagogical consequences, as if we were witnessing a quasi-normal start to the school year. Do we even know the percentage of parents who are in favor of their teenagers living for an indefinite period of time in a world where the fear of the other, the fear of contact, the fear of death will take physical form all around them, on the hundreds of masks of their teachers and fellow students, 8 hours a day (except for recess, we are reassured!), for months, even years? This remark also applies to adults, who are perhaps less resilient, and whose anxiety, partly aggravated by the media and political management of the epidemic, inevitably affects the young. Do we finally know the percentage of high school teachers who are willing to teach masked classes (which they must be happy about: they can drop the mask « when they are not teaching out loud »!)?

Has anyone thought about the political implications of a symbol that risks being experienced as an additional illegitimate constraint in a school setting already perceived by many young people (and teachers) as a place of massive constraints, conditioning and social division rather than of self-fulfillment, emancipation, construction and self-realization? Has anyone thought about the risk of aggravating rebellion, school phobias and dropout phenomena among certain young people? These are evils that we are currently fighting very poorly (having worked for two years on a project to fight against dropping out of high school, the author of this article can attest to this), for lack of appropriate means to do so. The mask may further exacerbate these situations, as well as teens’ feelings (and actions) of rebellion against society (which can be seen as a reassuring sign of mental health).

By imposing the wearing of masks in class, the school therefore puts the students at psychological risk and does not guarantee pedagogical conditions adapted to its missions. Given that the mask alters the conditions of communication, and therefore of the transmission of knowledge and learning, it cannot be guaranteed that all students will be able to achieve their pedagogical objectives in such conditions: without being able to read lips, how can they understand the English teacher, take their first steps in Dutch, teach French as a foreign language to newcomers, etc.?

Requirement for transparency

As professionals of education or health or as parents forced to put our teenagers in school wearing masks, we have no other choice than to address the different persons in charge of education and to demand from them that the references of the studies which demonstrate the sanitary necessity of imposing the mask 8 hours a day in school be made public, and that from now on other studies be carried out on this essential theme. If these studies do not yet exist, the decision about the mandatory wearing of masks in the classroom must be elaborated in a democratic way by including the arguments of other actors (anthropologists, sociologists, pedagogues, political scientists, communication specialists, jurists, philosophers, doctors, speech therapists, representatives of citizens, students, parents and teachers), taking into account the multiple stakes — including of course epidemiological factors, people at risk and anxiety, but not exclusively — in a rational and proportionate way.

That the references of the studies that weigh the possible benefits and the psychosocial collateral damage of wearing a mask for 8 hours a day for months on end among adolescents (and the general population) be made public without further delay, and that other studies be carried out on this fundamental theme. If these studies do not yet exist, the same remark as above applies: the conditions for a real citizen debate on the acceptable level of risk must be put in place. It would also be advisable that independent scientific studies be conducted on the respiratory effects of inhaling fabric particles, dyes and chemicals present in mask fabrics for 8 to 10 hours a day, just as some studies are already investigating the environmental damage caused by the proliferation of disposable masks, and that the results of these various studies be included in the future debate. 

From a democratic point of view, all this data should be made public so that parents and teachers can form a position. Secondly, given the importance of what is at stake, decisions concerning risk assessment and strategies for their control and reduction must be politicized, otherwise this measure will be experienced as an additional arbitrary constraint that is as heavy as it is senseless by a part of the population, and the part of the population that fears the virus may not find it sufficient as soon as the first cluster appears in a school environment.

A citizen’s demand 

The gaps in the establishment and publication of these scientific data and the rhetoric of certain experts, politicians and media to discredit the detractors of this measure and to avoid a true citizen debate on this question put the parents of pupils, the pupils and the teachers in a position to be able to attack these measures in justice and to denounce the errors of the experts (whose expertise does not cover the whole field of the risk, This one is not limited to viruses), who confuse scientific opinions with political prescriptions, and the politicians who neglect to put into perspective the opinions of these scientists and prefer to « lock up, compartmentalize », « make people feel guilty and penalize » rather than trying to make a social consensus emerge on the acceptable level of risk(6). This situation puts teachers, parents and students, even minors, in a position to peacefully but firmly reject learning and living conditions that impede the balanced development of students. In Jena, Germany, parents of students have obtained in court the withdrawal of the obligation to wear a mask in class.

Mental health professionals might respond that young people can adapt, that they have some capacity for resilience. Of course, human beings can adapt to a lot of unpleasant, and even horrible, situations. But what will be the psychological, relational, sociological, political and anthropological cost? We don’t know it, but we can think about it. In the current state of this reflection, does this cost not seem too high for a measure that, for the moment, is not sufficiently justified? And assuming that young people could adapt (but not without consequences), why should they adapt to a measure that has not been the subject of any real in-depth reflection and is far from a consensus? What unjustified measures contrary to their interests will they be asked to adapt to next? Obviously, there are a lot of situations that can be adapted to, but are they all desirable or even acceptable for the cause?

Taking a stand against the mask in class does not make us « super-defiant » with anti-social behavior. This type of depreciative category is intended to discredit objections to what is established or to what is fashionable to think by labeling them conspiracy theories from the outset. However, our approach, for our part, is one of questioning, of deepening, of questioning, of searching for a common good that is truly common, that is to say, that concerns everyone, especially young people. To reassure those who doubt it, the authors of this article do not believe in reptilians or illuminati, they do not question the existence of Covid-19 nor the usefulness of the mask in certain circumstances (to be determined again politically, on the basis of a social consensus, enlightened by scientific arguments in particular), they wonder if the road that is being traced by some experts and politicians in many countries and that some people are following without questioning it corresponds to the way of living together, to the society that we want for our children. The question of wearing a mask in school is, for us as parents and for me as an education professional, the last straw in a set of much broader measures whose legitimacy, even if only legal, is unclear and which, in addition to their political and sociological impacts, cause damage to the mental health of the entire population and about which we can no longer avoid a citizen debate(7).

Valerie Tilman, citizen and parent. Thanks to all those who contributed to the text and its argument.

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