Could you cope teaching a class full of masked pupils?

Pressure is building for face masks in classrooms. So what can we learn from French schools that already have them?
3rd November 2020, 7:26am


Could you cope teaching a class full of masked pupils?
Coronavirus: What Can Teachers In England Learn Form Schools In France, Where Pupils Wear Face Masks

Pressure for a requirement for students to wear face masks in lessons has been ramping up over the past few days.

A call from independent SAGE scientists for such a rule in secondaries in England has been echoed by a leading scientist advising government, while the largest heads' union has questioned whether masks should be a requirement in some classrooms.

But if that rule did come in in this country, how would it affect the way you did your job? How would you feel about teaching a classroom full of masked pupils?

Teachers in France have already had to deal with that uncomfortable new reality.

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Yesterday the regulations there extended the requirement to wear masks at school, including during lessons for children from age of 6. It had already applied to secondary-aged pupils there since the start of term.

So what has that been like for teachers in France? 

Coronavirus: Masks mean teaching needs to be more animated

"Teaching while masked is far from ideal, but I think we recognise that having the chance to be in school is better than learning/teaching remotely,"  Nicholas Hammond, headmaster of The British School of Paris, tells Tes.

"What we have found is that you need to be much more animated, in terms of your behaviour. You need to be very clear in terms of instruction, lots more breaking things down into smaller chunks."

A different type of transparent mask can also help, allowing some degree of lip reading. "We have see-through masks to use in situations where they are required," says Hammond.

Teachers over here already have similar ideas. Asked how he would feel teaching a room full of masked students, secondary history teacher Tom Rogers told Tes: "I think a visor is a better option than a mask because then the students can still see the teacher's face. I think being able to see the words being spoken is really important."

Masks in schools a 'small sacrifice' for safety

Of course, visors may not be quite as safe as actual masks, and Rogers adds: "Personally, I would do whatever was needed for my safety and that of others.

"I understand masks are annoying but in the grand scheme of things, a small sacrifice to make, in my opinion, for the longer term."

In France the masks policy in schools is strict. The only times pupils are not required to wear masks are during lunchtime or while playing sports if social distancing is in place. The government's website also gives boarders a pass on wearing masks - when they sleep.

The prospect of anything resembling that in England would doubtless fill some teachers over here with horror.

In August Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in North London, was quick to suggest that wearing masks would lead to poor behaviour.

Will masks in the classroom trigger poor behaviour?

"Kids will lick and spit in each other's masks, swap and ping them," the headteacher dubbed "Britain's strictest head" warned.

"Kids will be constantly touching their faces to readjust their masks. Teachers must realise this. Are we in such denial of typical kid behaviour?"

She also warned: "Teachers need to be able to see the mouths of their charges in order to hold them to account for chatting, swearing and the like. Mask them up and teachers won't have a clue who said it.

"Bad behaviour increases incrementally and so slowly that it is hard to track the demise of a classroom." 

Masks in schools can definitely make things more unpleasant as a collection of anecdotes shared by teachers in France demonstrates. 

Masks are great for hiding chewing gum

One observed that masks are great for hiding chewing gum, another reported that a pupil had vomited into his mask, and there's a mention of an anti-mask pupil putting forward conspiracy theories.

There's also a tale about three pupils abiding by mask-wearing policies, but then smoking the same rolled-up cigarette.

But it doesn't have to be that bad. "Undoubtedly there's potential for misbehaviour," says Hammond. "But I think there's a lot we can do to mitigate it."

"If you told me a year ago that I'd be working in a school where all staff and children would be wearing masks, I would have told you I wouldn't want to work there. But actually, it's been a lot better than I think I would have predicted.

"We have been really fortunate. Our pupil body has really understood the importance of mask-wearing, we have spent a lot of time talking about the different ways in which they should behave, how they should adapt their behaviour."

Clarity from government on Covid rules helps

The head points out that government messaging also helps with general compliance.

"The French government makes very clear pronouncements with very clear protocols," says Hammond. "Everything works on a two-week cycle: we now know that having the latest set of rules published, in two weeks they'll be reviewed.

"Since there's a greater degree of certainty, we have been able to say to pupils, "'You are coming back wearing masks, and we have spent a lot of time explaining to them why and how they have to wear masks."

There are also work rounds for teachers. Hammond says that this staff have found it beneficial for some topics, such as phonics, to pre-record a lesson without wearing a mask and show it on an interactive whiteboard. Of course, this has a downside that will be grimly familiar to teachers over here -  an increase in workload. 


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