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Wearing masks in ECEC – is it time to reframe our thinking?

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As the COVID-19 resurgence continues in Victoria, and with cases appearing across parts of New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland, the issue of wearing face masks is again a focus of discussion.

Masks have been compulsory in Victoria for educators when greeting parents and working away from children, but are not currently mandated when an educator is working with children. Many educators wishing to wear masks during the COVID-19 outbreak have been supported to do so by their employers, but others have felt nervous about doing so as they wonder about the impact it will have on the children.

Karla Wintle, Pedagogical Leader at Springvale Service for Children, Victoria, reflects on the topic


By Karla Wintle

Is it time to reframe our thinking on wearing masks in ECEC? If we continue to focus on protecting children’s innocence by sheltering them from the pandemic, we silence difficult emotions and experiences. What’s more, we may be missing crucial learning opportunities.

Opportunities to reframe teaching

During the Second World War, children were exposed to the need to wear a mask as part of their school day. One wonders on the pedagogical problems faced by teachers during this time, with children asking a multitude of questions such as “Why do we need to wear a gas mask?”

When reflecting on this, teachers had to re-frame their teaching and consider how they could explain this in a sensitive but deliberate way so as to save lives, and build resilience.

Children’s perspectives of COVID-19 and its implications have led to many opportunities to change the way in which we teach and what we teach, however, what do children really think about what’s happening around them?

Malaguzzi (in Cagliari et al., 2016 p.335) said that “uncertainty can be turned into something positive when we start to test it and see it as a state of ferment, a motor of knowledge”. This statement by Malaguzzi emphasises the need to see these changes within our society as a chance to re-frame our pedagogical thinking, embracing our uncertainties to enrich children’s learning.

When the government made wearing masks mandatory in Victoria, we tuned in to what children really thought about this.

The way young children have reacted to this has been very open and honest, opening up conversations about their favourite superheroes and how we can stay safe.  For young babies and toddlers, seeing people in masks may take time to get used to, as they are so reliant on facial gestures and signals to feel safe. Their outlook on the world has changed dramatically and the people that care for them look and sound very different.

A child-friendly approach

Other pandemics in the past have presented implications for teaching and learning such as the Spanish Flu in 1918-19. During this time the wearing of masks was compulsory, schools were closed, and many public activities were banned or restricted. Author May Gibbs used familiar children’s characters to encourage children to wear masks during this time.

While literary approaches were used to teach children, they were also used to lighten the seriousness of the situation. Similar teaching strategies are happening right now with social stories and books about COVID-19 being created to use in the classroom.

covid-19
This is an excerpt from a public health poster about the Spanish influenza (flu) pandemic, drawn by children’s illustrator and author May Gibbs in 1919. The detail features a Gumnut baby and a kookaburra sitting on a branch, with eucalyptus leaves wrapped around their mouths in the manner of surgical masks. Image and description of poster via naa.gov.au. © The Northcott Society and Cerebral Palsy Alliance 2016. May Gibbs, Gumnut Babies and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie are registered trademarks of The Northcott Society and Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

An ethical dilemma

Educators are currently torn by a pedagogical and ethical dilemma: should they wear masks to protect themselves or continue to teach and care for children the way they always have?

Considering how relationships are at the core of our work with children, how does wearing masks change our pedagogical practices to ensure every child feels safe and secure?

In these uncertain times, it stands to reason that we should be concerned about children’s wellbeing, however, there is the argument that if we shield children from sadness, grief, fear and disappointment, we could be denying them the opportunity to learn about resilience.

The danger of putting our own unconscious bias at the forefront of our teaching can overshadow children’s curiosity and opportunities for learning.

Speaking to an early childhood teacher about the wearing of masks, she raised her concerns about the social and emotional implications for children with developmental delays and how the recent changes during COVID-19 have affected children’s sense of wellbeing.

Children’s ability to recognise the feelings of others is being compromised and their learning disrupted. The need to research other ways to communicate with children is creating a new outlook for teaching and learning, but what are the long term effects of masking out our emotions? Only time will tell.

References:

Cagliari, P., Castegnetti, M., Giudici, C., Rinaldi, C., Vecchi, V., Moss, P. (2016). Loris Malaguzzi and the schools of Reggio Emilia: A selection of his writings and speeches 1945-1993. London, England: Routledge

https://www.naa.gov.au/learn/learning-resources/learning-resource-themes/health-and-welfare/epidemics-and-quarantine/may-gibbs-illustrations-public-health-poster



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3 thoughts on “Wearing masks in ECEC – is it time to reframe our thinking?

  1. What a timely article. We received advice from our employer today that it was staff choice whether to wear a mask or not whilst working and we had been debating this topic together. Thankyou for this different lens and reminder that we can trust children’s capacity for resilience.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. I’m glad my article has given you an opportunity to reflect and reframe your thinking.

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