Part 1 of 2 When schools around the country returned to their normal schedules and in-person learning this fall, the normalcy that existed prior to the #COVID19 pandemic did not return with it, as protective measures remained in place for our students and teachers. Most parents, including myself, seem to be supportive of using such measures for our students and teachers, and also as a teacher myself, I am agreeable with using masks and social distancing to keep everyone safe. While I am aware that not all parents and teachers agree with these measures, and there are legitimate reasons as to why these protocols make teaching and learning more challenging, the fact that we all get to be together in the same building and classrooms I feel makes it worth it. But as the parent of a child with autism, I cannot ignore the fact that being masked in school, during academic class time and also during social interactions, makes life that much more challenging. Add on top of that the fact that I have a non verbal son, for whom communication is that much more difficult, and you can imagine how life is not anything like what we experienced before the pandemic. It is now layered with one more obstacle to connecting with the world.
Being a teacher for many years and now working in special education myself, I reflect on what I see with both typical and atypical students these days, and the ways in which they cope with these requirements. Since I work with younger elementary and preschool students, I find that they have a natural inclination to constantly “fight the system” as it were, such as students who wear the mask but not covering their nose or whole face, those who try getting away with taking it off for a few moments at a time, getting way too close to to their friends during social breaks or snack and lunch time, and be generally messy with letting their masks get food or saliva saturating it. My son, for example, loves chewing things as he has an oral motor fixation, so the mask naturally becomes a chew toy for him, much like the preschool children I observe, who many times have masks that are genuinely soaked. In a strange way, I experience an interesting type of bonding with my younger or more challenged students, as they sometimes require assistance with their masks or in adjusting them. It is in those moments when I as carefully as possible try to help support them without breaking protocol, that I get a glimpse of their faces, their smiles, their hidden facial features that remind me of their uniqueness.
It is in these moments that I reflect back onto my own son, having similar motor and sensory issues that I see with some of the students at my own school, and how he may be having exactly some of the same experiences that they are now. I think about the ways in which he demonstrates his needing help, which really amounts to him just chewing the mask until someone corrects him, or him taking it off altogether, only to have it gently put back on. I think about the look on his face and how other students and staff react to him, the way I do to the students I teach, and how his infectious smile may affect the ones who work with him daily. The point of sadness that I get to is usually because I think about how incredible of a smile my son has, and now once again due to the mask requirement, that smile is covered. The light that shines from a face that is truly filled with the love of God has a shade placed on it, and a major vehicle for him to connect with others is stifled. This is the same as for all of our special needs children, as whether their communication is challenged or not, their faces are muted, their smiles are silenced, and the divine beauty in all of their faces is not present for all to see.
But we are reminded in these times and experiences about the love of God that still comes through despite these barriers, the same love that invites all of our special needs children to His table, the love that connects us all despite everything. I frequently imagine how He sees our children despite the ways their faces and personalities are covered, and how we as instruments of this love demonstrate that to the young ones we serve. I also imagine what conversations He has with our children and students when we experience the highs and lows of every day during our school days.
I think it would go something like this…
“I have a mask that covers my face, no one can see me under here.”
“It’s alright child, I See You!”
“I can’t show anyone how I’m feeling, because they can’t see my face.!”
“It’s alright child, I See You.”
“No one can see my smile with the mask on, and it’s the best part of me!”
“It’s alright child, I See You.”
“This mask is sweaty and uncomfortable, no on