Coronavirus has masked Colorado students’ emotions. Teachers are trying new ways to connect.

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During a typical school year — one that isn’t upended by a pandemic — Katieann Carochi greets her students with a handshake as they enter the classroom each morning. It’s more than a way for the fifth-grade teacher to say hello. “That for me is a big gauge as to how they’re doing that day,” said Carochi, who teaches at Lincoln School of Science Technology in Cañon City. Carochi relies a lot on facial expression to measure how her students are doing and how well they’re understanding her lessons. She also knows how much her own expressions matter to her students, particularly as they return to a school that looks remarkably different from the one they left in the spring, when the coronavirus shut down schools statewide. Now, as she welcomes her students to class each morning — each peering up at her with their masks in place — she swaps out a handshake for a temperature check but continues to usher them in with a “good morning,” asking them how they are and calling them by their names. It’s a new routine, one of many that Carochi has adopted. As teachers back in Colorado classrooms try to help their students navigate a new kind of school day, one in which many kids wear masks, eat lunch spaced a few feet apart and don’t interact with all the students they normally would, they’re finding creative ways to overcome the obstacles. While teachers say they aren’t worried that masks have obstructed learning, they are concerned that they’ve slowed communication and made it more difficult for educators to keep tabs on how their students are doing emotionally and academically. Carochi is a proponent of masks, mostly for the reassurance they provide to some families who have been hesitant about sending their kids inside schools. “I think that it gives families and some students a sense of safety and security about being back in an environment with a bunch of other kids and people,” she said. Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout) There was an adjustment period for Carochi and her students. But she’s found that a positive attitude about masks is contagious among her kids.  That kind of modeling behavior goes far to help children become more comfortable with wearing masks and seeing them on others, said Angela Narayan, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver. “Adults obviously don’t always love wearing masks,” Narayan said, “but the more that we can do to show children that it can be comfortable and normal, the more likely they are to do it and not feel anxious or nervous about doing it.” COVID-19 IN COLORADO The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado: MAP: Known cases in Colorado. TESTING : Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested. STORY: A huge number of Coloradans already say they won’t get a coronavirus vaccine. Will politics make it worse? FULL COVERAGE Masks might be more anxiety-provoking or frightening for some very young children when they see an unfamiliar adult with part of their face covered, Narayan said, “because it gives them less information about whether that person is going to be friendly or not.” She doesn’t believe that masks traumatize children. But wearing masks means children have to rely more on facial cues other than the mouth to understand and process positive and negative emotions. Kids have to learn those emotions and teachers and parents have to help them learn, she said. The importance of the eyes when a smile is hidden Masks have delayed Carochi’s ability to pick up on how her kids are responding in the classroom since she can’t immediately see their expressions or hear the inflection in their voices, clues that typically guide her in making different decisions or asking different questions. And sometimes, masks slow the flow of a lesson because Carochi or her students have to repeat themselves. Carochi said her throat gets hoarse after projecting through her mask while her students struggle to project through their own masks. Masks have also made private conversations with students more difficult. Carochi tries to corral a child into a space farther from other kids so that they can social distance and talk with their masks on. While speaking with students and remaining socially distanced, she also tries to kneel down to look…

By: Hettinger Farah
Title: Coronavirus has masked Colorado students’ emotions. Teachers are trying new ways to connect.
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