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Sound ... and sight

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Kennedy Elementary kindergarten teacher Kristen Robinson gets ready to read top her class Wednesday morning — without a mask.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Kennedy Elementary kindergarten teacher Kristen Robinson finishes reading the book “The Return of Thelma the Unicorn” to her class with thumbs up Wednesday morning.
Teachers tout benefits of being mask-free in children’s ability to learn to read

Look around Kristen Robinson’s classroom at Kennedy Elementary School in Medford and you’ll see her mantra “life is sweet in kindergarten” in big, bold, colorful letters stapled to the wall.

After her kids returned from recess on a cool Wednesday morning, Robinson sat down in a high-back chair with a rainbow pillow and read “The Return of Thelma the Unicorn,” by Aaron Blabey.

It’s about a performing pink mythical animal who has legions of fans but is shy to return to the stage because of what makes her unique — a horn and sparkles. But when Thelma meets Otis, she realizes it doesn’t matter what people think as long as she is spreading love and joy.

“Thelma the unicorn is back,” Robinson read to her kids as they recited the line with her. “The whole wide world was overjoyed. Her fans all went berserk.”

Robinson then stopped the reading to ask her class if they knew what the word “berserk” meant. Not everyone did.

“(It means), ‘I’m crazy!,’” Robinson said, before continuing the rest of the book’s passage.

“But this time, Thelma had her friend, and that's what made it work,” the Kennedy Elementary School teacher read.

Robinson read Blabey’s work during the first week of classes that face coverings to protect against COVID-19 were optional.

Throughout the pandemic, masks in schools sparked a political debate over whether states should mandate them. But as coronavirus case numbers decline and more states lift mask requirements, students once again can see their teachers talking to them — which some teachers say makes teaching more effective.

It’s a subject Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion touched upon in a news conference last month, when the state announced it was lifting the indoor mask mandate.

He noted how masks were optional for a brief period last summer, when cases were low and the district was holding its Summer Experience program for students.

“We had focus groups of our educators who stated that masks make learning more challenging for our students and education more challenging for our teachers,'' Champion said at the time. “Let’s say a first-grade classroom, where they’re learning to read, and they’re trying to distinguish between the B sound and the D sound, and how you have to put your mouth in a certain way to make those sounds. When you’re not able to see … it’s a real challenge.”

Just as research has been done over the course of the pandemic to understand how COVID-19 impacts the human body, academics and medical professionals have studied the pandemic’s impacts on children, including learning how to read.

A Medical Press article stated that while it is true that masks can impact verbal communication in both children and adults, experts aren’t sure how the wearing of face coverings impact a child’s long-term development.

An official with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association who was quoted in the article said kids learn a lot about communication by watching a person’s lips move, but it is not the only way.

“There are studies that demonstrate that children can tune in to these different communication cues and gestures when an adult's mouth isn't visible,” said Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology at ASHA.

For Robinson, the Medford teacher, the difference is “amazing” when it comes to being able to read to her students unmasked.

“I’m able to interject more and not be able to feel like I’m being smothered by a mask,” said Robinson, who noted interjections are one of the reasons she chose “Thelma the Unicorn.”

Things were not always easy for her Kennedy Elementary kindergarten class of 18, she said. At one point, when masks were required, Robinson used a microphone when she spoke to her students.

“I think the hardest part is, they’re watching for your mouth movement at this age to understand how words are formed and to see the (facial) expressions. That wasn’t present (with masks on),” Robinson said.

There was some evidence masks were hindering phonics development in her kids, Robinson said. The word “the,” for instance, might come out, “Duh.”

“Now that masks are off, we’re going backwards and doing a lot of corrective action with that,” Robinson said.

Brooke Maytanes, a third-grade teacher at Kennedy whose son is in Robinson’s class, said her son did not experience any difficulties learning how to read during the pandemic, though she agrees with Robinson that classroom reading without masks will be more effective.

“I do feel that it is even better that my son can see his teacher's lips move, because I think it is important for him to see how words and letters are pronounced,” Maytanes wrote in an email to the newspaper.

She noted that she experienced some of the same challenges with her students as Robinson did.

“My students would sometimes need me to restate a word or directions because they couldn’t hear it,” Maytanes wrote. “During spelling tests, I would say a word and sometimes have students ask me to repeat it because they couldn’t tell ... whether I said an ‘n’ or ‘m’ sound.”

She said she fielded phone calls from parents with questions about their children not understanding certain words or pronouncing them correctly. She recommended that parents continue to read to their kids at home, where they could be unmasked.

Robinson will continue to read unmasked as long as she is able.

“They’ll be able to understand the social and emotional cues through reading and also when we’re teaching reading,” she said. “They’ll be able to hear the sounds correctly, and they’ll be able to see your mouth move, because that part of reading is so essential for us as we’re developing that skill.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.