Our kids have returned to school (hooray!)…to full-day, full-class, real-deal, in-person learning. As the mom of a first grader and a child in TK, the start of this school year has felt miraculous, joyous, even a little surreal. My TK kid had zero preschool last year, and my first grader’s entire kindergarten year was confined to a dozen faces on an iPad, and the small IKEA desk my husband built for her. So, finally getting to set foot on their elementary campus—this was nothing short of thrilling, for everyone in our family.
Excitement and Anxiety
For many parents, however, this excitement came wrapped in layers of anxiety. As summer drew to a close, we saw increasing reports of ICU beds nationwide filling up with children sickened by the Delta variant. Meanwhile, shouting matches over masks continued to rage across our country, and our social media feeds.
Sometimes for me, this tension is near-paralyzing. How will our students fare together at school all day, I fretted, when as parents we are so bitterly divided? It’s unnerving to know our kids have classmates who would be pulled from school if mask mandates are lifted, and classmates whose parents are actively canvassing to remove masks in schools.
Then, driving home from school after the first week, I had an eye-opening conversation with my 6-year-old. Here’s how it went:
Me: “What do you think of wearing a mask all day? That’s a long time to wear your mask, huh?”
6-year-old: “It’s fine. It’s not hard.”
Me: “Is it weird seeing your teacher in a mask? Do you ever not understand her because her mouth is covered?”
6-year-old: “Nope. I hear her just fine. I understand everything she says.”
Me: “What about your classmates? I bet some of them have a tough time with their masks, or say they don’t like wearing them?”
6-year-old: “Nope. Not at all.”
My daughter relayed all this in a tone that was halfway between buoyant and bored. I checked her in the rearview mirror, to confirm that her face matched her tone. It did, but I was certain she’d change her tune when the sheen of the new school year faded. She hasn’t, and in fact, I’ve had versions of this conversation with both my daughters, every week since school started, and their answers are always the same: masks are “fine”, also they are “not hard”, and this is the case for everyone they encounter at their schools.
We Get To Be Together
This was also the response I heard from my child’s teacher on Back-to-School Night. “Sometimes they forget to put them back on after lunch,” she said, “but overall the kids are doing great.” I heard it from my neighbor, a high school principal, who said students are so grateful just to be with each other again, that caring about masks is almost an afterthought. As one teacher friend put it, “If it means we get to be all together again in the classroom, a little discomfort or annoyance that a mask can cause is worth being with our students for in-person learning.” I hear this echoed by friends with kids in neighboring districts, and friends with older elementary kids and middle schoolers.
They Are Fine
I realize my children—and the other kids, parents and staff I’ve talked to—don’t speak for everyone. I know there are students who are struggling. Their social skills, confidence, or comprehension behind a mask are challenged, and we should be doing everything we can to see them, and support them. However, the picture that has emerged and solidified through the drop-offs and pick-ups of the last couple months, is that masks are, indeed, fine. They are not these disruptive, terrible burdens that are impeding our kids’ academic and social lives.
I have to contend with my own social insecurities and the awkwardness of interacting with others in a mask, but I watch the kids interacting on the schoolyard, and they are unfazed. They’re off playing freeze tag before the bell rings, or comparing the contents of their lunchbox, or showing off a toy from home they snuck in their backpack.
We parents might be waging culture wars over face coverings, but our kids, thankfully, are too busy living their normal lives to follow suit. They loop their masks over their ears, and they get on with their day. Maybe we can watch them, and do the same.