Mask-to-Mask Instruction May Be More Problematic Than Distance Learning

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People talk about the upcoming school year as if we have a choice between in-person classes or distance learning.


We don’t.


The fact is there will be NO face-to-face learning this year.


Neither in our school buildings or on-line.


No matter which path we choose, we will be teaching behind a mask or behind a computer screen.


There is no middle ground here – nor should there be.


Even if schools try to execute some hybrid model where kids only attend classes in-person two or three days a week and go on-line for the remainder of the time, when they are in the school building everyone will be wearing masks.


And that’s as it should be.


When in a public place during a global pandemic like that of COVID-19, we need to wear face masks to reduce the spread of the disease.


But let’s not pretend this has no side effects.


Social distancing, limited mobility, plexiglass barriers, cleanliness protocols – all will have an impact on academics.


So if we reopen physical school buildings, we will not be returning to the kind of face-to-face instruction students enjoyed as recently as January and February.


It will be a completely new dynamic that may present as many difficulties – if not maybe more – than learning on-line.


That’s something people would do well to understand before deciding which course is best.


Mask-to-mask learning will not be face-to-face learning.


Social distancing may rob the physical classroom of almost all of its benefits over distance learning.


Again, I’m not suggesting we do without PPE or safety measures. But let’s be honest about how these measures will alter academics.

First, let’s look at masks.


Admit it. It is hard to be heard in a mask.


Imagine trying to get a message across to a classroom of middle school children with a piece of fabric hiding half of your face, obscuring your expressions and garbling your words.


I’m not saying it’s insurmountable, but it’s not indistinguishable from classroom teaching at the beginning of last school year, either.


It generates distance, just as it’s supposed to do. But teaching requires connection, understanding and relationship building.


Many of my students come into my class with trust issues. They’ve been let down by adults and authority figures. They aren’t about to put in their best work for just anyone. They have to know the teacher can be trusted and cares about them as individual people.


How are you supposed to generate trust when students can only see your eyes?


Moreover, masks are a permanent symbol of the danger we’re all in just being together. Every time we look at each other we’ll be reminded of risk, threat and our own vulnerability.


These do not make for good teaching. On Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of 
Needs, only physiological necessities like food and water take precedence. Without a sense of safety, it is difficult to impossible for students to achieve their full potentials.


Unfortunately, facial coverings aren’t the only problem. Consider physical proximity.


As a teacher, I rarely sit when students are in the room.


During a 40 minute class, I probably lap the space as many times going from desk to desk observing students progress, answering questions, reading work, making suggestions, etc. This will be much more difficult with the threat of Coronavirus in the room.


How can I closely observe my students from a minimum of 6 feet away?


I would suspect this will be even more profound with kids with special needs. Just because they’re in the classroom with the teacher does not mean the teacher will be able to serve them as well as under normal circumstances. This is bound to lead to increased frustration and acting out.


The most common diagnosis my middle school students have is ADHD. The most common adaptation I’m told to make to help them overcome this is to repeatedly prompt them back on task. And you don’t want to do this in a way that will draw attention to the issue. I often walk up to students and ask questions privately, or point to something on their papers.


This will not be easy when trying to avoid their physical space. Any verbal queues would be loud enough to be heard by the rest of the class.

Nor does this allow for students to work together on group projects. They can’t push their desks together and work on assignments cooperatively in the physical classroom. In fact, in the time of COVID, these kinds of projects may actually be better served on-line.


Finally, imagine the difficulty of getting children to comply with social distancing mandates.


If we can’t get adults to wear masks, how can we expect to get their kids to do it?


Moreover, children are mischievous. Some may try to purposefully cough on their classmates just to get a reaction. Others could intentionally take off their masks to annoy classmates. As every teacher knows, some kids will do anything for attention. Even negative attention.


In-person teaching could easily degenerate into a game of trying to get kids to obey the rules with little to no actual instruction going on.


Are administrators and school boards really prepared to suspend students for endangering their classmates? Are parents willing to accept such punishments?


And let’s not forget the elephant in the room.


What do we do when safety measures fail?


When a student gets sick, do we quarantine for two weeks all the other students who came into contact with him? When a teacher gets sick, who teaches her classes while she is in isolation? And do we keep her students home, too?


Before we can reopen schools to in-person instruction, there are a host of problems we have to solve.


We have to figure out how to get kids to and from school without crowding them together on buses. We have to arrange classes and move students safely from point A to point B within the building. We have to figure out how to safely feed them – since no one can wear a mask while they eat. We have to figure out how to adequately ventilate buildings that were in need of repair for decades prior to the crisis.


One has to wonder – is it worth it?


With so many challenges involved with reopening school buildings, might it not be better to just continue distance learning initiatives?


As we’ve seen, the push for in-person schooling isn’t justified by academic concerns.


Though under normal circumstances face-to-face learning is worlds better than on-line learning, that is not what we’ll be doing if we reopen schools this year.


In truth, the pressure to reopen schools during this crisis comes more from political and economic considerations than pedagogical ones.


Lawmakers and policymakers don’t want to put forward the funding necessary to reduce the risks. Teachers fear they’ll be laid off if they speak out against unsafe working conditions. Parents fear they won’t be able to return to their own jobs if they have to stay home to take care of their children.


These issues can all be solved by good government. Our lawmakers need to follow the lead of nearly every other country that has lowered infection rates. We need federal relief checks so people can pay their bills without having to risk their lives working through a pandemic. We need personal protective equipment (PPE), protection from evictions, and universal healthcare so that we can weather the storm.


It is not the job of schools and teachers to fix these problems. We can’t. We can only further enable bad leadership.


But putting aside political and economic issues, there is an obvious best course of action.


Under these circumstances, continuing distance learning is the best choice from the standpoint of both safety AND academics.


In any other year, having a teacher physically present in the classroom with a cohort of students is worlds better than Brady Bunch style ZOOM meetings or assignments posted on-line.


But this isn’t any other year. It’s 2020 and Coronavirus cases have topped 3 million in the United States. There were nearly 60,000 new cases just yesterday.


You don’t close schools when there are only thousands of cases and then reopen them when there are millions.


One thing to recommend on-line learning at the present time is that we know it can be done. We already tried it last school year. There were certainly major problems but we have a good idea what they are and can make changes to at least attempt to solve them.


We can do a better job ensuring all students have access to computers, devices and the Internet. We can make expectations clear and achievable and increase project based assignments. We can habituate participation, increase interactivity and offer multiple chances to do the work.


Don’t get me wrong. Distance learning will never be as effective as face-to-face instruction.


But we will not have face-to-face instruction this year. It will be mask-to-mask or screen-to-screen.


That cannot be emphasized enough.


None of the possible solutions does a perfect job overcoming the problems.


There are not enough adequate virus screenings to tell who has the disease. Nor can we screen those who have it and keep them quarantined from the rest. Nor do we have adequate PPE to reduce infection. Nor does any vaccine appear to be forthcoming.


With the exception of the last point, many other developed countries have done much better with these things and so are in a better position to reopen schools.


But we have to face facts. The United States is not in the same position. In fact, we’ve made wearing a mask a political statement instead of what it is – a public health concern.


Until we solve these issues, there will be no perfect solution for schools. We just have to choose the best of several imperfect options.


In my opinion, the only way forward is distance learning.


To do otherwise is like trying to figure out how to live in a burning building instead of putting out the fire.


The only sane option is to get to a relatively safe place first.


I hope we can do that for our children, families and communities.


I hope that the death cult of capitalism doesn’t require teachers to jump on the pyre of economic growth.


We all deserve better.


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37 thoughts on “Mask-to-Mask Instruction May Be More Problematic Than Distance Learning

    • CDC and other places are saying they aren’t. But if someone has a health issue or other special need and cannot wear a mask it is probably safer than wearing nothing at all if they can handle wearing a shield.


      • The CDC doesn’t recommend them yet because “It is not known if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles.” There’s a huge difference between not having evidence about it at all (which is what they said) and having evidence that it doesn’t work.

        The CDC also says “If face shields are used without a mask, they should wrap around the sides of the wearer’s face and extend to below the chin,” which sounds pretty safe to me.

        I know my state has mandated the use of “face coverings” in schools, and will be shipping masks to schools. But face coverings includes shields, which the CDC includes as an alternative for when masks are not feasible.

        The classroom next to mine will probably use face shields instead of masks because one of the students is deaf and reads lips. My classroom might end up using them too because a lot of my students have trouble reading facial expressions even without masks.


  1. Mask to mask will be the same as face to face, no difference….we just have to adapt and safe lives instead of losing them


    • Cindy, adaptations are possible but unnecessary if things will be the same. The fact that you admit they are necessary proves that things will be different. And they will be very different indeed.


  2. I agree that masks would change the classroom environment, but I disagree with the premise that masks, specifically, are necessary. Face shields would solve most of the problems you described, and the guidelines allow for masks to be removed, if necessary, if people are 6 ft apart.

    I agree that having to maintain a 6ft distance would change the nature of teaching, but again, I disagree with your premise. The CDC’s guidelines say to space students 6ft apart “if feasible.” Alternatively, you could create small pods in your classroom. Each pod would be a static small group of students, wearing masks or face shields, sitting and working together, maintaining 6 ft distance from other pods. The teacher would still be able to go around to each pod, there’d just need to be a lot of sanitizing happening.

    I also disagree with your conclusion. Yes, with whatever protocols each school/district enacts, school will be different. And for some students, online learning may be preferred. Overall, though, the risks to students from not going back to school (including, but not limited to, social isolation and unnoticed child abuse) are far greater than the difficulties of what you call mask-to-mask education, for regions that have control over the virus. Regions that have failed in controlling the virus, like Florida, should use online learning.

    “The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” –


    • AJ, I don’t think your optimism is justified by the facts. Face shields would be better but are not proven as safe or recommended as an alternative to masks. And it’s easy to see why: they don’t inhibit respiratory droplets as well as masks. The CDC guidelines only neglects to prohibit in-person classes because the Trump administration would not accept it. Already CDC guidelines say that in-person classes are at highest risk, and the President is demanding they reconsider.

      I don’t understand how increased sanitizing decreases the need for physical distance of at least 6 feet. I also disagree that the effect of spreading a deadly virus to friends and family is less impactful than the other factors you mention. Imagine the isolation of a child whose parent is quarantined, on a ventilator or dead. As to regions that have not controlled the virus – that’s the US. We had about 50,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day last week. This week we’re up to 60,000 a day. People move freely from place-to-place. The disease is spreading at a faster rate now than in April and May.

      As to The American Academy of Pediatrics, your data is out of date. Since the statement you cite, the AAP has issued a new statement cosigned by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association warning against reopening schools.


      • Our curve is flat – we have plenty of hospital capacity, so our death rate is low. Less than 5% of people get infected and about 95% recover, which means about 1 in 400 people die of Covid. That’s not a lot, really. My school has less than 50 people, including adults and students, and plenty of space.

        I knew my AAP information was out of date, but I included it because I remember reading a quote from one of the AAP people involved that heavily implied that the only reason they changed it was because they didn’t want politicians to use their statement to support opening schools when their metrics weren’t strong enough for that yet.

        Also, my school found face masks with clear middles, which is super exciting.


      • I don’t know where you’re located, AJ. I guess I’d question how long the stats you quote have persisted? If you’ve had no new cases for two weeks, you would be in pretty good shape. But what about surrounding areas? How isolated are you? If you’re not on an island, all it takes is a few passing infected people to possibly cause a problem. There are lots of things to consider.


  3. Thank you. Your commentary and the sources you use to back up your observations help me feel less insane. Are teachers incapable of drawing a boundary? I mean, look at the enormous opportunity we have to simply say “no”. Teachers all across the country finally have this single thing to unite us despite all of our unique communities and the nuances that define “need”. We don’t want to strike, as that hints at negotiating, and not wanting to die is beyond disagreement. Not wanting to infect my co-workers, spouse and other family members is also non-negotiable. I’m not working someplace where I’m supposed to do the best I can not to get hit by “stray bullets” – and especially when this situation does have alternative ways to manage until this global health crisis subsides.


  4. […] Kids would have roughly 20 minute classes. As a classroom teacher, I know that little more will get done than taking role and getting kids ready to start. I am glad Dr. Holtzman reconsidered his original plan. which would have allowed students to forgo masks in the classroom and congregate only 3 feet apart. He is right to increase precautions with mandatory masks and 6 feet social distancing. But let’s be honest. If you think students will abide by them, you are engaged in magical thinking. Moreover, these precautions will inevitably have a negative effect on learning. Screen-to-screen instruction is less effective than face-to-face instruction, yes. But Mask-to-mask is NOT face-to-face. We may achieve more academically keeping kids online than trying to instruct through plague conditio…. […]


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