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I thought my students would struggle to wear masks. I was wrong

SHARE I thought my students would struggle to wear masks. I was wrong
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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

I teach third grade English language arts in a Portuguese dual-immersion program in the Jordan School District. One of my biggest fears about going back to teach this school year was the thought that students would come parroting their parents’ negative opinions about masks. My fear was that there would be increased defiance, bullying and troublemaking because of these differences of opinions. It’s not a stretch of the imagination, as we frequently see and hear adults fighting over the issue of masks in school. 

Earlier this summer, and even as recently as this past Saturday, parents held rallies objecting to the mask mandate across the state of Utah. And in July, Utah made national news when parents crammed into a Utah County Commission meeting — sans masks — to oppose sending their children to school with face coverings. If it’s confusing for adults, we can only imagine how our children and youth must feel. 

Early in August, four of my fellow United Utah Party candidates and I hosted an online Brave Chat about education, in which the guest teacher, guest parents, other candidates and I expressed our concerns for returning to school in these unprecedented circumstances. We felt there were legitimate reasons to be worried about the school year. When school began, however, I was so pleased to learn that all my fear was for naught.

The Jordan School District postponed the first day of school a week to give teachers, administrators and families additional time to prepare, and this was truly a blessing. During that week, my school canceled Back to School Night and invited every child to come with one parent to school (masked, of course) to meet individually with their teachers. It was wonderful. It gave my partner teacher and me the chance to meet our 52 students and their parents before school even started, and I got to do a one-on-one reading assessment with my kids. 

After these assessments, I’d ask each of my students how they felt about the upcoming school year. Were they excited, nervous, or both? Every one of my future third graders expressed a lot of excitement about coming back. It had been so long! 

For those who said they were also nervous, I asked them what they were worried about. The answer? That they’d struggle in math, that they’d forgotten too much Portuguese, that they’d have a hard time making friends, etc. Normal worries for normal kids. Not a single one of them complained about having to wear masks. Not one. 

Fast-forward to the first day of school. As I was going over class rules and procedures with my darling 8- and 9-year-olds, I came to the mask rule. I told them that we had to wear masks this year, not only because they keep us healthy and safe, but that the rule came from leaders in higher positions than my own. I asked how many of them were glad to be back in school. Every one of them raised their hands. I asked how many of them would like to go back to doing school online. All hands stayed down and a look of terror came into their eyes. Wearing masks was just another school rule to them. As long as it kept them from repeating online school, they were cool with that.

We’ve been in school two weeks now and we’ve worn masks every day. When the couple of students have forgotten to bring them to school, I have some disposable masks on hand that the kids put on without a complaint. Having to wear masks in school is far less problematic than I thought I’d be. 

Would I prefer not to wear a mask? Absolutely. Would I prefer that my students not have to wear masks either? Of course. They are inconvenient, as I’d love to see the students’ smiles and for all of us to have a little more comfort. But if wearing masks is the price we have to pay to keep our communities safe and our schools open, it’s a small price to pay. 

Kids are resilient. They’ve got this. And there’s a lot we can learn from our children and youth.

Kate Walters is a 16-year educator who currently teaches English language arts in Bluffdale Elementary School’s Portuguese dual-immersion program. She is running for Utah House District 56, which covers portions of American Fork, Lehi and Highland.