I have been, until recently, teaching in a high school in France. My students ranged from ages 11 to 18 and I taught in English, my French never having recovered from the regular punishments for linguistic incompetence during my own school years.
In France, to support the sustainability of the economy during the pandemic, the government has ensured that schools have remained open since the end of the last summer vacation. Through a great many legally enforced protocols, the government and local authorities have made it mandatory for students, teachers, senior managers and all the vital ancillary staff to wear masks the whole time. It's like everyone's taking part in a wild west bank robbery in the 1890s.
The situation is certainly surreal, especially for the children. It is not possible to see each other's full face during conversation and those whose diction is less than perfect are difficult to understand, especially when the language in which they are obliged to communicate with me is their second or even third. On occasion, I'm not even 100% sure of which short person I'm talking to.
The emotional impact of facial expression, very important in France, is greatly reduced and this has meant that people generally speak louder to compensate. French conversation is never a peaceful affair but now raised voices have become the norm simply to ensure comprehension. Nonetheless, the older students and adults have largely adapted but I've seen a more profound effect of this prolongued 'social masking' on the younger children.
In class, the younger students (11-14 years old) were required to ask my permission to remove their masks in order to drink from their water bottles. I found myself astounded on these occasions as I realised that I hadn't actually seen their faces since the end of June 2020. In every single case, the child's full face, below their eyes, looked entirely different to the one I remembered. Even when covered, at least in my case, I can't help imagining the face of the person that I am talking to. For that visage to be unlike the one I once knew is very disconcerting. Especially when that person is a child.
The first thing I noticed was how pale the kids looked. The days spent behind their masks had removed all the colour from their cheeks and I was presented with wan little creatures devoid of their usual vitality. In a strange way, they seemed old and young at the same time, happy to be free of the stifling confinement of nose and mouth for a moment but with eyes that lacked their normal accompanying sparkle.
Then I understood how their natural, positive exuberance had been replaced by an anxious energy, reflecting the profound abnormality of the situation. They had become more moody during the evolution of each day, after breathing their own air for so long. By the final teaching session, some had attained a veneer of mild hysteria while others had sunk into a dark and disconcerting silence.
As the bell rang at the end of each day, the universal sense of physical release was palpable.
I'm no child psychologist but I have now been able to observe the effects of constant mask-wearing on close-knit groups of children. I suspect that the most profound effects will be observed later, as the children pass through their later teenage years where the validation and approval afforded by shared smiling becomes so important.
Younger children now are being denied the practice of that shared smiling. They are not fully experiencing the nuances of facial expression, vital to general human communication. Their capacity to read the intentions and reactions of others is being reduced by only seeing each other's faces above the nose. They do no longer understand the subtle effects their words are having on each other.
The pandemic will present us with many consequences. A profound reduction in our ability to communicate as we once did may well be one of them.
Ronnie Smith has been a history teacher in Romania and France over the past 10 years. He continues to live in France where he intends to devote more time to writing