Masks are off, smiles are on

The challenges of mask-wearing weren’t any easier for many adults and certainly gave me considerable impetus to rethink how I relate to the world around me.


Rasha Abu Baker

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Published: Tue 4 Oct 2022, 6:26 PM

Last updated: Tue 4 Oct 2022, 9:56 PM

Because of the pandemic, the law of the land, and depending on where you are in the country, the last 30 months have been a mask-wearing, Alhosn-sharing, brain impairing, Groundhog Day of an ordeal. So, as you can imagine, when the government announced the lifting of its mask mandate last week, with a few important exceptions such as in hospitals and mosques, the news came like a breath of fresh air.

One of the most exciting results for me was that my 3.5-year-old twins are finally able to see the faces of their teacher and class assistant, both of whom they have grown to admire and love over the last year since enrolling at our local nursery.

Just like most other parents, I have had some concerns about the impact of mask-wearing and how that has affected the development of young minds and their perceptions, especially in understanding facial expressions and picking up on non-verbal cues. So last Thursday was a big day for us as I excitedly explained to my girls, “Today, there will be no more people in masks in school. Ms H. and Ms G. won’t have a mask on and you will be able to see their faces!”

Speaking to me at the end of the first day after the restoration of normality, Ms H told me that a few of the 'littlest' ones had had a hard time going to their teacher until they put their mask back on because they didn’t recognise them. But she added that as the day went on, “I got a lot more smiles and participation from them as I could enunciate clearer and they could see my mouth.”

Teaching and learning during a pandemic have been a testing time for both students and educators. Ms H. said that with the masks covering the mouth and muffling the voice, teachers at nursery and pre-school often had to use a lot more animation in their tone and expressions to get children excited about doing things they don’t necessarily have much interest in or didn’t choose to do themselves. But since the easing of the mask mandate, she noticed a really positive impact on teacher-led activities like circle time, story time and group games, where her voice and expressions captivated the children’s interest much easier, got them engaged much quicker, and she was able to keep their attention for much longer periods of time.

The challenges of mask-wearing weren’t any easier for many adults and certainly gave me considerable impetus to rethink how I relate to the world around me. For one, I cannot imagine what a masked existence is like for the hearing-impaired or autistic, bearing in mind the strain I put on my brain as it was practically forced to fill in the gaps of all the strange ‘half faces’ I have met over the last 2.5 years.

This normally automatic process has led to us being influenced by new perception processes to which some have adapted easier than others. For example, I was taken aback when I caught a glimpse of the face of the security man in my building the other day and found that his lower face didn't match the face my mind had created for him in my imagination. But I guess the more astonishing fact was that although he was very familiar to me, I had never actually seen his full face. It was a truly bizarre realization. This also happened with a colleague who has persisted in wearing a mask at all times; it slipped off one time, and again, I was astonished at how inaccurate my poor brain had been at filling in those blanks as he looked nothing like I imagined!

But as we know, the mind is an absolutely fascinating organ, and its ability to piece information together is quite amazing, to the extent that despite all the preceding issues, the opposite is also true! Another unforgettable mask moment happened several months ago, when a work acquaintance who I only conversed with online (through email but with our photos visible) was able to recognise me as I was coming out of the cinema, despite my having a mask on. She approached me with conviction and certainty, called out my name and said hello, although embarrassingly, I had no idea who she was at first glance.

So, the easing of mask rules will make a difference to us all, but let’s not forget that despite the relaxing of the rules, the pandemic isn’t officially over; there are cases that are still being reported and in order to keep this privilege of not wearing a mask, we should continue to be responsible and maintain the many health and safety precautions and preventive methods that we have grown accustomed to. This includes washing our hands regularly, using hand sanitizer when visiting public places, keeping a safe distance from each other and always wearing a mask if we have any symptoms, not only to protect ourselves but to respect and protect others from all types of viruses and infections, or those in a category still required to wear one.

The pandemic has certainly served as a good lesson in hand washing and hygiene, and hopefully, we will carry our better habits with us into the future, perhaps to help avoid a possible resurgence of health and safety rules… but having said that, the ability to see people smile again is, figuratively and literally, a very welcome breath of fresh air!

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