The Valley News has been selected to add two journalists — a photojournalist and a climate and environment reporter — to our newsroom through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Kid gloves or tough love? Schools grapple with getting students to wear masks

  • Kemari Wildgoose, 12, looks on as her fellow seventh graders Gabby Crane, left, Kenzie Wescott, second from left, and Lilly Keefe, right, all 12, pass a soccer ball during recess at Weathersfield School in Weathersfield, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

  • Weathersfield School Principal JeanMarie Oakman said she is disappointed in the Scott Administration’s decision to let school districts dictate their own plans for re-opening this fall. Students in her district have school choice after attending kindergarten through eighth grade in Weathersfield, the differing schedules have made it hard on parents coordinating transportation and childcare she said. “By leaving it wide open, nobody’s doing the same thing,” said Oakman in Weathersfield, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jenn Rousse, a behavioral interventionist at Weathersfield School, adjusts the mask of Nicky Saragusa, 6, to cover his nose as his first grade class lines up after an outdoor class session in Weathersfield, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

  • Forgetting his mask is on, first grader Nolan Van Alstyne, 6, tries to lick a drop of milk off his finger during lunch at Weathersfield School in Weathersfield, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • With his mask set aside so he can eat, Weathersfield School first grader Takota Shaw, 7, removes the film on his take-out lunch from the school cafeteria in Weathersfield, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2020 9:38:58 PM
Modified: 9/17/2020 9:38:48 PM

Of all the criticisms of plans to reopen schools this fall, one of the most common was that children wouldn’t be able to keep their masks on. If some adults can’t manage to wear a mask into a crowded store, how can we rely on kids to do so? Or so went the common complaint.

In their reopening plans, schools wrote in detail about how they would manage children who struggled to keep their masks on. The approaches varied widely, from promises of gentle encouragement to threats of out-of-district placements for repeat offenders.

At two schools that have very different written approaches to mask-wearing, school leaders ended up working with students in very similar ways. At both The Lyme School and Weathersfield School, the first week back has been dedicated to welcoming children and to building relationships between teachers and students. That and plenty of mask breaks have made the adjustment to wearing masks all day easier.

“The first three days, I asked teachers to build personal relationships” with their students, said JeanMarie Oakman, principal at Weathersfield School, a preK-to-8 school in Ascutney. Those relationships make it easier for teachers to work with children on the basic health protocols of masks, social distancing and hand-washing.

“Children want to make their teachers happy,” Oakman said in a phone interview.

In written communications with parents in July and August, the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union warned that children who repeatedly struggled to follow the mask-wearing requirements might need placements outside the district. Schools in the Windsor-based supervisory union, including Weathersfield School, have crafted their own policies.

Students who can’t wear masks for health reasons are exempted, but for nearly all students, masks are required, and even those who cannot wear masks will wear face shields instead.

Oakman said she had to speak to one student who had been asked several times to wear a mask properly. It was to keep the school safe, Oakman reminded, but she added that if the student couldn’t keep a mask on, they couldn’t attend school. A similar warning went to the child’s home.

“I want to send the message that it’s about health and safety,” Oakman said.

Regarding the student who struggled to keep a mask on, “I guarantee I won’t have to say it again,” Oakman said.

The mask break has become a key part of the school day.

At Weathersfield, teachers have been outdoors with their classes for 75% to 80% of the day, Oakman said. Outdoors, “they’re allowed more mask breaks,” she said. And indoors, as long as students are stationary and 6 or more feet apart, they can remove their masks, such as when a teacher is reading aloud to a class.

At The Lyme School, when a child appears to be struggling to keep his mask on, teachers take it as a sign that it’s time for a break, Principal Jeff Valence said.

“Maybe they’re trying to tell us something, and maybe we need to listen,” he said.

The teachers call for both formal and informal mask breaks, he said. Pre-pandemic, Lyme School used tables in classrooms to foster collaborative learning.

“I bought the last 146 beach chairs with awnings in North America,” Valence said.

Children sit in them indoors and out, and have small, wooden tablets to put across the arms of the chairs while they’re working.

“Nobody’s unhappy sitting in a beach chair,” Valence said.

School staff talk to children about masks as an appeal to reason and an appeal to the collective needs, he said.

“We’ve had to have conversations in which we’ve had to explain why it’s important,” Valence said. “If you’ve established really positive relationships, relationships that are based on respect, we get a good response.”

One of the school’s reopening plan document says in bold type, “In no way will a child be punished for struggling with wearing a mask.”

“The last thing you need to do to get that response,” Valence said about encouraging children to wear masks, “is to make someone feel ashamed.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2020 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy