Wearing Masks? Back to School? A Call for Compassion and Wisdom.

It has been nearly a month since I have posted. Like many people, parents, teachers and school leaders, I have been struggling. We have been living in unusual times over the past five months and as I look around, I am amazed at how much our world has changed. Even as our province begins to open up little by little, we are far from being “back to normal.” We wear masks in public, and look with suspicion upon people who do not, without knowing why they are not wearing one. And now, in the midst of all the changes we have faced, another is before us…do we send our kids back to face-to-face learning.

I am not here to tell you what you should do. I am not even here to tell you what we, as a family, have decided to do. What I am hoping to do is to remind all of us that this is a time to act, not out of fear and judgement, but with compassion and wisdom.

I read a story recently about a family asked to leave a Disney store in London when their six year old child, a child with autism, struggled to wear her mask properly. The London bylaw is clear that a child under 12 who is unable to properly wear a mask, and any person with a disability or medical condition which would prevent them from safely wearing a mask is exempt from the requirement. I do not wish to argue about the bylaw. I wear a mask. My children wear masks. This family wore masks. What I wonder about is where was the compassion and wisdom on the part of the store manager who sent them out of the store? Could he or she asked how they could help, rather than making the judgmental assertion that just because they know someone with autism who was able to wear a mask, this six year old also should? When the family told the employees about their child’s difficulty with keeping the mask on before they even went into the store, could they have found a way to support the family instead of saying it was okay, only to change their response when the child did exactly what the parents indicated? Acting out of fear and judgement hurt this family…hurt a child.

Someone close to me is unable to wear a mask for health reasons. While in a store she saw a friend standing in the check-out line. She said hello and the friend not only didn’t return her greeting, but turned her head and actively ignored her. That kind of judgment is harmful, especially in a time when connection is needed more than ever. People who are unable to wear a mask for medical reasons already feel conspicuous and often guilty, and to ostracize them makes them feel unworthy, separated and alone.

Right now families are making tough decisions about whether to send their kids back to school for face-to-face learning or to keep them home and support them with virtual learning. Neither decision is easy. Neither choice feels like a good option right now. There are problems and shortfalls with either decision. As a principal, I am engaging in conversations with teachers who are feeling uncomfortable and others who are yearning to return to work. All of them are prepared to welcome students back, to support them, to help them through the fears and the lasting impact the past months have had on them.

I recently shared our family’s decision with some people and was met with a lot of questions. Some were legitimate information-seeking questions, and others felt very judgmental, like they were questioning whether or not I actually care about the physical and mental well-being of my kids. Understand, these are not bad people. These are not people who are generally super-critical. These are folks who have legitimate concerns and who care about me and my children. When we act out of fear, however, and project that onto others, we lose compassion. We lose wisdom.

This is a time for compassion. When the pandemic began, I saw so many acts of compassion and empathy, and it was heart-warming to see how neighbours and strangers showed kindness, helped each other out, checked in to see how their more isolated friends were doing. As time goes on, are we losing that? Are we heading back to our former lives and forgetting about the few good things that came out of the pandemic, like a better understanding of our shared humanity? When your friends and family share with you that they are struggling to make a choice where there is no good choice, are we quick to tell them what we think they should do? Or do we show compassion and offer to listen before responding with “that is a tough choice to have to make, but I know you will make the right one for you and your family.”

Now is a time for wisdom. Yes, we need to be cautious. Yes, we need to be concerned about one another and keeping each other safe. But we need not be fearful. We do not need to react out of fear. We need to make wise decisions for ourselves and for our loved ones, while also considering that sometimes other people are doing what is best for themselves and their families. Can we assume that people have good intentions until they show us otherwise? Can we recognize that people are struggling in this new reality and offer empathy and support?

Let’s not lose what we gained through this pandemic. Let’s show up for one another. Let’s offer to talk through the difficult choices ahead together and respect others’ decisions. Let’s not make parents feel worse when they are trying to help their child wear a mask or when they decide to send or not send their children back to school.

More than ever, we need to stand together, support one another, keep each other safe, stay connected. We will get through this.

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