Schools might be the best place to teach mask culture — and fight racism

This is an opinion column by Amanda Kong, who is a secondary teacher in Metro Vancouver, B.C. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As a person of colour, I’m aware my mask-wearing face consciously and unconsciously triggers anxiety, fear, and discrimination. 

In the early days of the pandemic in March, I’d noticepeople would step away when my mother and I would walk out with our masks on. That example of microaggression no longer happens with the same frequency anymore, as mask wearing has become more normalized and public health information around COVID-19 has evolved over time. 

Wearing masks was initially discouraged to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with the caution that they can give the person wearing a mask a false sense of security, and lead to extra face touching to adjust the mask. Then, in April, the message began to shift, and by late May masks were recommended in situations where physical distancing couldn’t be maintained.

More recently, a WHO study found that face masks are effective both in health care and community settings.

Students in class at Bloomfield Elementary School in PEI show how classes have adjusted during the pandemic. Kong writes mask wearing is something that can be learned regardless of culture, and schools are the ideal place to promote this. (John Robertson/CBC)

Even then, there remained this concern among the teaching community that wearing a mask might frighten students and hamper their ability to learn.

Initially, very few teachers and students wore masks. Now, when I look at my Grade 12 science class this fall, the majority prefer to wear a mask in the classroom. 

Doing an informal poll, many of them shared my perspective that even though masks alone cannot shield us, they are an important layer in indoor settings where it’s not possible to physically distance. We’ve already started talking about the science of wearing masks in class, and although it’s too soon to have heavy discussions about racism with my students this early on in the school year, it’s something I intend to work up to.

I believe mask-wearing is something that can be learned regardless of culture, and schools are the ideal place to promote this. And we can look at Asia to see how it has been commonplace there.

I reached out to friends and colleagues who live in Asia, and they graciously shared their experiences with me. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, masks became a symbol of reassurance and solidarity in many Asian countries. In Taiwan, students and teachers both wear face masks during classes. Some of the teachers I spoke with said they felt uncomfortable and frequently breathless when speaking through a mask, but over time the practice became habitual. They said that there were no limitations on the quality of teaching and learning. In Singapore, transparent face masks are used to teach students who rely on lip-reading. 

Asian countries that were first hit by the pandemic have found different ways of navigating how to safely reopen schools. 2:12

Despite the inconvenience of masks, some teachers felt there should be a greater emphasis on curbing the community spread over personal preference. In Hong Kong, teachers and students also wear their masks throughout the day. Children as young as six have been able to use their face masks. They are taught verbal and visual cues to cultivate mask-wearing habits through spoken reinforcement and posters. Students are provided chin-breaks where they can take off their masks outdoors. Many teachers I spoke to did not understand the controversy behind mandatory masks as they see its benefits outweigh the risks.

In contrast, there was noticeably greater cultural resistance to wearing masks in western culture. Perhaps western communication relies more on expressions, so masks are seen as an impediment to that. Perhaps SARS’ impact was far greater to sway public opinion in Asia, and that’s why the Asian community in Canada adopted mask wearing early on. 

Those early efforts — which included self isolation and masks — to stop the spread of COVID-19 in B.C. appear to have paid off, despite some of its members being stigmatized because of the virus, say infectious disease doctors. 

Data released by the province in June showed Richmond, B.C., the city with the highest concentration of Chinese residents in the province, as having the lowest percentage of cases on the Lower Mainland, where the bulk of B.C.’s cases resided.

Masks might help protect others from the virus, but not racism. 

If we normalize a mask-wearing culture in class — the way it has been done in Asian schools — and use that opportunity to teach science, tolerance and empathy, we can create a safer place for all.

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