New for This Year’s Back-to-School Shopping List: Face Masks

Jul 14, 2020

Below the requests for highlighters, colored pencils and glue sticks, past the descriptions of spiral notebooks, two-pocket folders and three-ring binders, is a newly added line on many school supply lists for the 2020-21 academic year—one that illustrates just how much the world has changed since spring.

The new line item goes by “face masks,” “fabric masks,” “cloth masks” or “face coverings.” Whatever term is used, the overall message is clear: Many schools and districts, whether by their own choice or by a decision handed down from the state, will be encouraging—and in some cases requiring—that students and staff wear face masks when they return to their school buildings in the fall.

Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes also make frequent appearances on school supply lists for the coming school year, but unlike face masks, those have shown up in years past.

At the Starkville Oktibbeha School District in Starkville, Miss., face masks are featured on the school supply lists for every grade at every school in the district, from Pre-K to high school.

The school supply list of an elementary school in the Starkville Oktibbeha School District.

At West Des Moines Community Schools in Iowa, the school supply lists were updated on June 12 to include “an optional reusable face mask,” according to a message on the district website.

The 2020-21 school supply list for fifth graders at West Des Moines Community Schools in Iowa.

At Joplin Schools in Joplin, Mo., all students from kindergarten to 12th grade are asked to bring a face mask with them starting on the first day of school, on Aug. 13. This is also the case for Iowa’s Winterset Community Schools, Ohio’s Marysville Schools and for countless others that plan to re-open their buildings in the fall.

The 2020-21 school supply lists for grades K-5 at Joplin Schools in Missouri.

Despite the polarization that has surrounded mask-wearing in the U.S., the presence of face coverings on school supply lists appears to transcend regional preferences and red state/blue state divisions.

At the Model Laboratory School in Richmond, Ky., located on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, all 700 K-12 students will be required to bring and wear cloth face masks when they are at school starting on Aug. 24, says Model superintendent John Williamson.

The 2020-21 school supply list for third graders at Kentucky's Model Laboratory School.

Based on guidance from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, as well as from the state board of education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Williamson felt that Model, a public school, had two viable options: It could either find a way to keep students six feet apart at all times, or students would have to wear masks.

Since the Model school building is not large enough to accommodate social distancing indoors, and since staff and families were vocal about wanting to avoid a hybrid instructional model, where students participate in a blend of in-person and remote learning, the choice was clear.

“We opted for masks because we felt face-to-face instruction would trump virtual or hybrid instruction,” Williamson says, adding that, “pedagogically, we believe the best instruction we can provide is face-to-face, though we’ll go virtual if we have to.”

For now, the school is moving forward with plans to teach in-person classes five days a week this fall (with an exception made for those who are granted medical exemptions). But that means students will be wearing masks for hours on end each day, likely getting hot and agitated behind the fabric—especially at first, when they are adjusting.

To alleviate some of students’ expected irritation or discomfort, Model staff are trying to hold as many activities and classes outdoors as possible, since students are permitted to remove their masks outside. In addition to recess, the school may allow physical education and some science classes to be held outside, where possible. Staff are also planning to allow students in the secondary school (grades 7-12) to eat lunch outside on a rotating schedule once a week, weather permitting.

Designing schedules around outdoor time and social distancing has not been easy, but Williamson feels it will be worth it if it sets students at ease. “We want to make school as normal and as routine as it has been in prior years,” he says. “But it definitely will not be the same as last year. School will be different.”

Model will have ample disposable masks on hand for students who aren’t able to acquire face coverings or simply forget to bring them. But Williamson hopes that kids will see the new item on their school supply lists this year as almost like a fashionable—if inconvenient—accessory.

“If kids get to pick the mask they’re wearing, and if there’s some personalization to it—like maybe some kids wearing masks with soccer balls on it—that may be more palatable than a uniform-type feeling,” Williamson says. “We don’t want their masks to look like surgical masks. We want kids to have identity, so their masks should have identity.”

For students with a lot of school spirit, Williamson says, Model has designed masks with different variations of the school logo. He also hopes students will embrace them as an opportunity to get creative, decorating their masks or picking out fabrics and patterns that tell their peers and teachers who they are and what they love.

The face mask designs Model has created for students and staff. (Model Laboratory School)

Asked about pushback surrounding the new mask policy, Williamson says that, surprisingly, he has received none. “Honestly, I think the majority of people are just glad they’re going to have their kids back in school. That’s the majority sentiment, and if this is the way we have to do it, I think people are going to comply.”

In fact, masks have become part of the dress code. Students and their families have been informed that those who don’t comply will be violating the code, which, on the first offense, comes with a detention, and increases in severity on subsequent violations.

At the Community Consolidated School District 15 (CCSD 15), in Palatine, Ill., the decision to require masks came directly from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The guidance, released in late June, states: “All individuals in school buildings, including all public and nonpublic schools that serve students in prekindergarten through grade 12, must wear face coverings at all times unless they are younger than 2 years of age; have trouble breathing; or are unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the cover without assistance. Face coverings must be worn at all times in school buildings even when social distancing is maintained.”

So at Gray M. Sanborn Elementary School, and others part of CCSD 15, school supply lists include face masks, with a note explaining that it is required by the state.

Morgan Delack, a spokesperson for CCSD 15, said that the state has indicated students are allowed to remove their masks on two occasions: to eat lunch (which they’ll do in their classrooms) and when they are outside and separated by more than six feet.

Other kinds of face coverings are allowed in circumstances where lip reading or language development is taking place, Delack says, such as for early childhood educators, teachers who serve students who are deaf or hard of hearing, or those working with English language learners. In those cases, the state is permitting clear face shields to be used in lieu of masks.

Students may well struggle to understand each other or their teachers due to the masks muffling sound, Delack acknowledges. “Any time that occurs with a face mask on is not going to be ideal, but nothing about this school year is ideal,” she says.

Delack says the district has heard from families who are relieved that students and staff will be wearing masks at all times—and in fact want as much personal protective equipment used as possible. Others are not happy about the mandate. “It’s something we’re all going to have to get used to,” Delack says.


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