Faces of the “New Normal?”

One of my granddaughters was drawing a picture of her kindergarten teacher. She absolutely loves school and her teacher; it showed in the detailed drawing. As she was drawing, she remarked that her teacher had a beautiful smile. It startled me only because our schools continued to require masks for everyone. Earlier, she stated the students can pull the masks down if someone can’t understand what they were saying, but they replace them quickly. When I asked if that was how he saw her teacher’s smile, she nodded slightly. What struck me was how quickly she stopped drawing elsewhere on the page and drew a mask to cover the smile she had previously put on her teacher’s face. (If you look closely, you can see the smile “under” the mask.)

It saddened me. This child was 3 when the pandemic began and for almost half of her life, she has seen people outside her family with masks and now considers it “normal” to hide a smile. My granddaughter has an expressive face and a delightful smile (and yes, I am prejudiced). She blesses us with her personality in our home, but her classmates and teacher only see her face during lunch or when she needs to be understood. Kindergartners learn to read and spell and trying to enunciate sounds or words clearly would be difficult behind a mask. I don’t doubt that a student (or teacher) needs to move the mask temporarily to show or demonstrate proper pronunciation.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I blogged about COVID-19. Stuck in the Middle – Part 1 looked at a Venn diagram of 3 positions that emerged, showing the camps of differing opinions. We didn’t realize the pandemic would last so long. Nor did we understand how the divisions would take root in families and communities like they did.

Of the many mitigation efforts, masks have become just one point of contention in our community. Our state is one of the last to drop masking requirements. Our governor recently announced loosening the mandate for everywhere but schools. Two of my grandchildren attend a school district that continues to require masks, while many in the surrounding communities have gone mask-optional or “mask suggested” because of a recent lawsuit over masking students. Drama and division continued and our district may have been the sole holdout in our area.

One grandchild recently opted to join the protesting students in her middle school. They were protesting that mask mandates were expiring everywhere but schools. At first, they sent these students to a media center to “attend” class via zoom, but when the group got too large, many, including my granddaughter, were sent home for virtual school. The school board planned to discuss this issue soon. Before they could meet, the “Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) of the Illinois General Assembly voted 9-0-2 against extending Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s emergency rules to enforce state mask, vaccine and testing mandates.” Mask mandates in our school district became mask recommended overnight…and could change again as we have seen so many times. However, our community has seen masks become a point of debate and strain on relationships.

I have witnessed a wide range of mask styles over two years. At one end of the spectrum are those who refuse to wear a mask or choose one that lets them breathe easily, such as a mask made of lace. It’s pretty as an accessory, but not effective as a mask. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals who wore as much protection as they could find. I’ve seen gas masks likely purchased from army surplus stores. Like kindergartners learning to enunciate clearly, I saw one individual remove the mask to talk to a clerk, thus rendering it useless. I also observed people with 2 masks; I even saw one person with 2 masks and a face shield while wearing a tool belt of sorts containing disinfectant spray and hand sanitizer at the ready. A bit of an overkill, but this was when we were all encouraged to even wipe down boxes delivered to our home, and nurses were stripping in the garage and showering before entering their homes. So much was unknown in the early weeks.

If a Venn diagram were to depict the current situation, I would again fall in the middle of several options.

  • Masks work. As a nurse, I know they do – if the proper one is chosen and worn correctly. I spent nearly 40 years voluntarily wearing masks when indicated to protect my patient and myself. Before I retired during the pandemic, masks had become essential for the entire shift. Because I worked in surgery, we used both an N95 and a surgical mask as required, along with a face shield. What I see too often in the general public is a variety of good masks used improperly. Worn too loose or not covering the nose at all decreases the masks effectiveness leading to….
  • Masks don’t work. Studies vary as to the effectiveness of mask type and use. Some advocate only N95 masks are truly effective. As stated, I’ve worn these masks often as a nurse and they can be uncomfortable. To work, they fit snugly. Those who hate the tightness of simple surgical masks would not be likely to tolerate these; you cannot just loosen it at or below the nose like I see so often. So businesses or individuals relying on these also depend on the wearer using them correctly.

While there are multiple sub-positions, these two reflect the main ones I’m seeing and hearing. Those who want the masks to be required depend on others to do so correctly. Often their view resulted from taking the virus seriously and it is a valid point. Individuals who masked, vaxed, boosted, and distanced still got the disease; some died. Those who don’t want masks to be required are often OK with optional masking, and those I know wear them some places and not others (depending on the situation and individuals involved). They cite the statistics on the low number of those who succumbed to this disease and rely on their healthcare choice, also a valid choice. I have friends and family on both sides. Again, I fall in the middle, seeing the validity of each position. It is not a simple decision for school boards or other governing bodies.

One thing that should trouble both sides is the inconsistency we see in our leaders who are deciding these matters. If masks are vital and work, there should not be situations where they become optional. I’m completely OK with situational use. It was the standard for nearly all my career as a nurse. But, the recent super bowl in Los Angeles highlighted situational use that made little sense – at all. A state or school district that, like mine, requires schoolchildren to mask all day but allows those who could afford a ticket to enjoy prolonged hours close together without masking is hypocrisy, plain and simple. These incidents only fuel the divide between those that want masks to keep everyone safe and those that don’t want them mandated.

It has often been said that these are unprecedented times and we should get used to the “new normal.” We are yet to see what effects all these measures have on our children. I overheard someone state that her child has delayed speech and they think it is due to so much masking. Like my granddaughter – sometimes the masks impede speech development. Others worry about the social skills of children who are growing up in a world that fears getting too close to others or seeing someone unmasked as dangerous. Occasionally, I have turned away from someone in the supermarket aisle if they are unmasked. I don’t like this new normal if it means we lose the ability to greet others with a smile. I know smiles extend to someone’s eyes (at least I hope so, because I smiled in the last fully masked picture taken of me). But there is nothing like seeing a face fully engulfed in a friendly smile.

In the meantime, our children, especially the younger ones, are watching and learning how we, as adults, react and treat those who have different opinions. The letter sent by my district to parents and staff urged them to be respectful: “District #7 expects each of our students and community members to treat each other with civility, understanding, and respect. As individuals, agreement is less important than seeking to understand others and the perspective that they hold related to any given situation. ” There are lessons our children need to learn beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Learning how to listen and seek to understand others who have differing opinions is important. So is sticking to your convictions after thoughtfully deciding, realizing there are pros and cons to both sides.

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