The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter @ClareRKilbane
The scientific evidence is clear that wearing face masks reduces the transmission of COVID-19. However, there continues to be a lot of social controversy about wearing them. Although face masks are small things, they raise big questions. One question we benefit from considering is if, in a Catholic context, wearing face masks is humanizing or dehumanizing? The answer is both! In the coming months, Catholic school educators will help their students if they demonstrate how to approach mask-wearing with creativity and offset feelings of dehumanization. If they embrace the pandemic health precautions as a “teachable moment,” these leaders will allow their students to gain a powerful lesson about solidarity and also develop virtue.
Wearing face masks as humanizing
In theological terms, an action is humanizing when it allows us to more fully develop the potential of becoming who God has created us to be. If we accept that human beings are created to be in loving relationships with God and one another and if we recognize that virtue aids this, then wearing masks is an exercise that is very humanizing. Rather than wearing a mask to simply adhere to school rules, Catholic school students can be encouraged to wear a mask to practice solidarity and develop the virtues of kindness, charity, and temperance.
Wearing a face mask is kind and also an act of charity to others
It helps a student to hear that while very few people like to wear masks, doing so is more tolerable when we acknowledge it as an act of care for others. Wearing a mask, much like other personal sacrifices (e.g., sharing one’s belongings or using good table manners) is a personal choice to respect other people and honor their dignity. When students wear a mask, they should feel good about performing an act of charity. And when students see their classmates wearing masks to protect them, they can be reminded that they are valued. Further, all students can be reminded that even though every community member will appreciate the good choices they make about health practices, those who are most vulnerable will benefit the most. For some students, especially those who live with elders or are close to people with preexisting health conditions, it is critically important to reduce their risk of contracting and transmitting the virus. Other students, those who suffer from anxiety, will benefit from a greater sense of well-being when everyone is wearing masks and exercising extra caution.
Wearing a face mask develops temperance
Scientific research to date indicates that masks must be worn consistently and correctly by all community members for the most effective protection. This means that self-restraint or temperance must be developed both individually (i.e., by each student) and collectively (i.e., uniformly across a community). When a student’s temperance waivers (as is predictable, because it will develop only gradually), it may help him or her to be made aware of and contemplate a unique aspect of the virtue, namely its “transferability” or value in all aspects of a person’s life. The teacher might explain how a student who develops self-restraint will benefit from it in all situations, such as when studying, (e.g., it helps fend off distraction), learning a musical instrument (e.g., it promotes regular practice), participating in a sport (e.g., it leads to better sportsmanship), or building the habit of prayer (e.g., it enables greater growth). Developing temperance is like building muscle strength—the more we practice the virtue, the stronger it becomes.
Wearing a face mask promotes solidarity
School-aged children are, quite naturally (due to their developmental stages), focused primarily on their own needs, rather than those of others. To succeed in life and flourish, a student benefits from knowing the truth—that they have been created by God for relationship and all of creation, including human communities, is necessarily interdependent. The news headlines offer ample, irrefutable evidence that all members of the human family are inextricably linked, as Catholic social doctrine teaches. As long as some members of the community suffer, we all suffer. And if some in our community are unprotected, we all are unprotected. Many current events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, illuminate our universal needs and humanity’s common destiny. Solidarity is about recognizing others as our brothers and sisters and working together for the common good. When embracing this truth in the midst of difficult times, school community members will find that joy is derived through solidarity and an active union with others.
Wearing face masks as dehumanizing
Many sociologists predict that the Covid-19 pandemic will result in a significant, permanent decline in genial interactions among people in public spaces. Although this is possible, it need not be so. Physical distancing undeniably impacts our social interactions, but only unravels the social fabric if we allow it. It will help us if we adjust our understanding of what pro-social behaviors are. For example, when a person is in public and avoids others to protect someone else this need not be interpreted as rude or unfriendly. We must learn to adjust and recognize it will take extra effort for everyone to remain close at a distance. Remembering to smile with one’s eyes and wave in greeting when moving to create a safe distance is important. Thoughtfully modifying one’s actions makes it possible to balance social connection and also the community’s physical health.
If one accepts, as Catholics do, that a person’s body is essential to his or her identity as an ensouled creature, it explains why wearing a face mask feels so unnatural. The stifling feeling we experience when our breathing is obstructed, the frustration that arises when we attempt to communicate using muffled speech, and the alienation we feel when we cannot easily read the facial expressions of our loved ones and friends, are all evidence that our physical experiences are an integrated part of our identity. The very same practices that allow us to exercise our care for others radically subvert our accustomed sense of humanness.
In difficult times, it is easy to feel powerless and focus only on the feelings associated with our physical, material experience. Yet Christians must challenge themselves to acknowledge the whole of reality. We are more than our bodies and feelings—we are created in God’s image and have the potential for love. Therefore, wearing a mask is only as dehumanizing as we allow it to be. By engaging creativity, a divine gift we share with the Creator, Catholic school teachers and leaders can adjust and adapt to the new conditions of practice and assist their students to grow in the ability to love as God does.
Here are some creative suggestions, or “workarounds,” that may off-set the dehumanizing feelings students often experience when wearing a face mask and help allow them to grow in their connections to and care for one another:
Supplement and augment support for “seeing” and connecting with classmates
The appearance of a person’s body (especially his or her facial expressions) is an important aspect of identity. It is often the first and most powerful mode for communication and a foundation for developing a relationship. A comforting smile can make a student feel welcome in a new place and initiate friendship. If a teacher can supplement ways for his or her students to “see” one another and get to know one anothers’ appearances, it will increase a sense of connection and develop a more cohesive classroom community. Mask-wearing need not preclude students from learning to visually distinguish between their classmates while wearing masks nor should it keep the students from getting to know what their classmates’ uncovered faces look like. Photographs taken without masks of the students, teachers, aides and other school personnel should be brought into a prominent display in the school building. They might even be displayed with the message, “My name is X and I care about my friends.” Where there are many new students and relationships, this will be especially helpful. Young learners might find it easiest to wear laminated photos on a lanyard, while older students might display them on their desk on a “name tent.” Their teacher could place his or her photo on a poster, coffee mug or t-shirt.
The students should also be encouraged to look beyond the masks in their classroom and learn to “see” one another as God does—as unique, beautiful, and irreplaceable people who are both body and soul. The students would enjoy being coached to notice the other physical traits associated with their classmates, such as their posture, body language and eye color. Going even further, the teacher might emphasize that truly “seeing” others requires a concerted effort to explore their distinct character as it made evident in thoughts, values, talents, struggles and more. Students might be encouraged to pray for one another—bringing the intentions and needs of their classmates’ struggles to God. After so much isolation, opportunities for the students to get to know one another more fully, relate socially, and care for each other spiritually must be an acknowledged priority.
Create alternative channels for the expression of emotion
Although we express ourselves with our entire bodies, everyone in the classroom will find it harder to communicate emotions with the obstruction of facial expressions due to masks. New ways of sharing feelings must be developed. Our voices, though muffled, can be recognized as an even more important way of communicating ourselves, our sorrows and our joys. Students should be encouraged to speak directly and regularly with their teachers about their well-being. Although this important personal communication is best shared one-on-one and in an intimate, relational conversation, classroom settings do not often make this possible. To ensure it happens, a routine will need to be established. For example, young children may find it helpful to draw a face that communicates how they are feeling during the school day and display it on their desk. Older children will benefit from opportunities to give their teachers a quick emotional “status check” using methods such as hand signaling, journaling, or online polling. Procedures for how the students will express and get help with especially difficult emotions when they arise should always be in place. Given the unprecedented nature of the challenges many students may experience during the pandemic, creating a safe space where feelings are recognized and validated is of particular importance.
Expand methods for creating connection and welcome
Although children are more flexible and find it easier to adapt than adults, it should be expected that mask-wearing may negatively affect how comfortable students are welcoming others and being friendly. Whether greeting classmates from a safe social distance in a school hallway or crossing paths with staff on the playground, most students will feel encumbered as they engage with others. They will need to be encouraged that this is an important aspect of community and one they must intentionally work to preserve. The school community as a whole will benefit from the launch of an initiative to be even more welcoming and build a sense of connection and unity. For example, a plan might be developed to reward friendliness or a special, non-contact greeting (e.g., an eye wink or a special clap/snap pattern) could be developed for everyone to share. Such efforts allow the community to regain control over the impositions of the pandemic, reducing anxiety and increasing well-being.
As Catholics, we believe that our all-good and all-loving God does not cause pandemics or crises to happen, but draws good from them. Because God can write straight with crooked lines, there is nothing beyond the reach of his transforming love. Further, we believe God recognizes our dignity by allowing us to participate in bringing about this good. If Catholic leaders and teachers approach wearing face masks with creativity, they will find that their students and schools emerge from the crisis stronger for it.