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Parents of masked and unmasked students alike worry how children will navigate social interactions with Chesterfield decision

Sign out front of school
Crixell Matthews
The sign outside of Robious Elementary School in Midlothian. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Depending on which household you were in on Tuesday night, the vote by Chesterfield’s School Board lifting the mask mandate for it’s roughly 63,000 students either came as welcome relief or a huge disappointment.

“I called a family meeting,” said Megan Lemay, who has three elementary students in the Midlothian district. “I kind of sat them down and just told them that at school on Thursday, some of their friends may not be wearing masks, but that they would continue to wear their masks like they have been.”

Lemay, who’s a physician, says she wasn’t surprised by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order but she was heartbroken. She says as a physician, she’s seen “firsthand the really horrible impacts of COVID on our community.”

She says her kids were shocked to hear that some of their classmates may not be wearing masks on Thursday.

“I think they feel prepared to be in school with kids not masking, but my seven-year-old is nervous,” she says.

At Sara Tostenson’s house in the Matoaca district, it was a different story.

“With my older two kids, they are both so thrilled and don't care if they're going to be the only ones [without masks] which we know they won't be,” Tostenson says.

But like Lemay, Tostenson also has a child who’s nervous.

“My younger daughter, she is very anxious about somebody telling her that she's doing something wrong or her being the recipient of bullying,” Tostenson says. “But I'm definitely dealing with anxiety from her over being on the end of the person who could potentially be bullied or be segregated or be treated differently.”

In speaking with several parents who fall on both sides of the debate, the conversations about how to handle classrooms, lunchrooms and hallways on Thursday followed a similar thread.

Jessica Noe is the mother of a Chesterfield Kindergartner and has a 16-month-old son. She says she began prepping her six-year-old daughter on what to do if someone tells her child to take their mask off.

“It's kind of like, how do we answer that while still being kind?” said Noe. “We are reiterating why we wear masks. We wear masks because we are protecting others. We are protecting the people around us.”

Noe says she is trying to make the conversation more tangible for her daughter.

“Because she is only six, I'm trying to make sure that we can make it personal,” she says. “Who are we protecting in school? Who are we protecting in our family? Who are we protecting as our friends?”

Tostenson also followed a direct approach with her daughter, telling her that on Thursday there will be kids who will wear masks versus those who don’t.

“I've just told her that, of course, there are going to be outliers. I cannot promise her that nothing will be said to her,” Tostenson says. “But to know that we are not breaking any rules, that we followed the mask mandate up until this point. We never encouraged her or any or any of our other kids to not wear a mask. We are following the rules. Now we are being given the choice, and this is the choice that we're making for them.”

Parent Jennifer Moschella has three elementary-aged children and started the conversation well before the vote. She told her kids that every family has to make their own decisions based on what’s right for them, whatever their health concerns or comfort levels are.

“And just because somebody comes to a different conclusion on something is not bad, right?” Moschella says. “If you see somebody with a mask on don't say, ‘hey, why don't you take your mask off?’ Because maybe they don't want to, and that'll make them uncomfortable. Or maybe their parents don't want them to because there are other contributing factors, right?”

Tips From a Child Developmentalist

Dr. Karen Kochel is a psychology professor at the University of Richmond.

“I am a child developmentalist. And in particular, my work focuses on studying children through adolescence and their psychosocial development in the school context,” says Kochel. “So their psychological functioning and how they get along with their peers in their classroom and school.”

Kochel has good news in terms of how children may react to their peers wearing or not wearing a mask.

“The good news is that for kids who are generally accepted by their peers, for kids who have at least one good friend, I think wearing or not wearing a mask is probably not enough to elicit persistent bullying or bullying that would really negatively affect a child's well-being,” she says.

Kochel says of course the pandemic has altered children’s lives – in some cases in significant ways for over two years. And she does have some approaches parents can use to talk with their children about how to navigate yet another turn in their lives.

“One is that, whatever our stance, it makes sense that we try our best as parents to approach these discussions about masks from a place of compassion,” Kochel says. “So I think starting with empathy rather than a directive probably makes it more likely that a child will be receptive to whatever it is we have to say.”

She adds that the conversations need to be tailored to be developmentally appropriate for the child’s age.

“Preschoolers and early grade school children are really in large part motivated to do the right thing to avoid negative consequences,” says Kochel.” So if parents, for example, are advocating for wearing masks, they might talk to their child about how they'll maybe help keep them healthy so they can continue doing the things they enjoy, like playing soccer or playing with friends or missing with grandparents or whatever it is they do for fun.”

For older children, in middle and high school, Kochel recommends trying to talk about the concept of what is moral.

“This idea of the greater good can be part of the conversation,” she says. “So instead of telling your adolescent they need to wear a mask or they can't wear a mask because of X, Y and Z, I think guiding adolescents through some cost-benefit analysis so they can come to a conclusion on their own about what makes sense might be appropriate in that case.”

How to handling bullying

“If we think about why children bully other kids, they usually do so because they have this goal of elevating their social status,” says Kochel. “So they're going to generally pick on kids who they view as being an easy target.”

Kochel says that if parents view their kids as falling into an easy target category - whether for masks or anything else - there are things parents can do to mitigate that risk.

“Kids are really more likely to persistently bully kids who react with very strong emotion, or who are unlikely to stand up for themselves,” Kochel says.

She says it’s best to coach your children to first of all keep their cool. But second, teach them to say something short and direct that shows that they're assertive and will stand up for themselves.

“It could be something as simple as, ‘leave me alone,’ ‘I just want to stay healthy,’ or ‘it's not a big deal,’” she says. “Just a one-liner that lets peers know, ‘don't mess with me’. And ‘I'm not going to get all bent out of shape, because you're making this comment.’”

Kochel says kids are also less likely to pick on their peers who have friends.

“Theoretically, this makes sense, because it's harder to pick on kids who have allies,” she says. “So parents might encourage kids to spend some time nurturing their friendships or establish stronger ties with peers.”

Kochel suggests parents try to organize play dates. She admits that may be hard during another COVID-19 variant surge but says there are ways to do so safely.

She also suggests that if over time, parents feel like the strategies they’ve tried aren’t working, they should discuss their concerns with a teacher.

“In some cases, teachers will be willing to establish classroom norms where it is acceptable to choose to wear a mask or it's acceptable not to wear a mask,” Kochel says.  “And it's unacceptable to really criticize kids for whatever their decision might be. So in this way, teachers might play an important role, reinforcing positive kinds of peer relations and discouraging bullying or other negative peer interactions.”

Parent Jennifer Moschella has talked to her kids about potential bullying, inspired by closely watching numerous school board meetings and what people are saying online. She says she’s encouraging her children to make wearing or not wearing a mask a non-issue.

After telling her daughter to let the teacher know if someone is bothering her, her husband recommended her child just try to ignore any possible taunts.

“And my daughter was so cute,” says Moschella. “She goes, ‘Yeah, you don't need to let a raindrop turn into a thunderstorm.'”

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.