By Molly Breen
I participate in several professional groups as a preschool director. During the pandemic, some of these have morphed into “support groups” as we navigate the daily deluge of questions, plans, and changes related to preschool policies. Top of the list in many of our discussions is What is your mask policy? And chances are good that you, too, have done the calculus to figure out the best possible answer to that question (for right now).
Depending on the location of your program and local mask mandates, there may be layers upon layers of decision-making related to masking. Not surprisingly, a highly differentiated approach seems to be the most appealing, which tracks well with my developmentalist brain: we differentiate learning for all children for most content, why not for masking?
Mike Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) from the University of Minnesota, recently clarified his position and recommendation on cloth face coverings during the pandemic:
“At the outset, I want to make several points crystal clear:
- I support the wearing of cloth face coverings (masks) by the general public.
- Stop citing CIDRAP and me as grounds to not wear masks, whether mandated or not.
- Don’t, however, use the wearing of cloth face coverings as an excuse to decrease other crucial, likely more effective, protective steps, like physical distancing.
- Also, don’t use poorly conducted studies to support a contention that wearing cloth face coverings will drive the pandemic into the ground. But even if they reduce infection risk somewhat, wearing them can be important.”
Osterholm’s recommendations can be partnered with the masking guidelines for your state and from the CDC regarding age-appropriate practices in your setting—this is not a time for us to “do it our own way.” But we can, and should, address the why behind the what/how with our students when it comes to masking. Chances are good that you’ve already had many discussions with parents and caregivers about their concerns and that you’ve created comprehensive plans for staff and students. Our learners also deserve to understand why we are doing what we are doing, and they deserve a chance to express their ideas and feelings about masking and the pandemic in general.
Why not take a developmental approach to masking and the pandemic? We can make it part of the curriculum, without a heavy-handed instructive approach. I suggest the following: if you are not requiring students to wear masks all day, designate times for mask practice. Moving through common spaces like hallways and bathrooms makes sense, or you could do your morning meetings or circle times with masks.
Make a mask song. Yes—a mask song! Songs and chants are great for transitions and for self-regulation. Why do you think Daniel Tiger is so incredibly popular with young children? He is the “tiger king” of mantras like The grown-ups always come back. Start with a familiar tune like “London Bridge” or “B-I-N-G-O” (M-A-S-K-S) and add your lyrics.
(to the tune of London Bridge)
Germs can make us get so sick, get so sick, icky-ick!
Germs can make us get so sick, so we put masks on.
Masks can help to keep us well, keep us well, that’s so swell!
Masks can help to keep us well; we put our masks on!
In our setting, teachers are wearing masks and other PPE indoors while families are able to decide whether they would like their children masking (if it is developmentally appropriate based on the age of the child). All our students have two cloth “school masks,” and we have kid-size disposable masks available as well. We plan to practice masking during designated times and to make pandemic-related discussions low-hanging fruit in our morning meetings. Even if we tried to avoid pandemic discussions with kids, it would inevitably bubble up, so we are taking a proactive approach.
Some examples of questions we will explore include:
- What do you know about the coronavirus?
- What is something you are wondering about the coronavirus?
- Do you think people can still get sick in a “regular” way?
- What are some ways that we can get sick that are regular?
The pandemic is taking a toll on our nervous systems, on our classroom cultures, and on the families and children with whom we work. Truly it is taking a toll on every square centimeter of our lives. This year, let’s remember to be gentle with ourselves and with one another and to put our shared human experience of this trauma at the very headwaters of the inevitable rapids ahead. More than getting masking “right,” we have to get masking “good.” (I know it’s not grammatically correct.) And by this, I mean that we must keep our relationships with kids central to how we approach our pandemic-related program changes. So, whether you mask or not, talk germs or not, or encounter the pandemic firsthand in your setting or not, remember to keep it developmental. And if you don’t, I trust the children will always steer you back into the forward-propelling current of truth and authenticity.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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