Safety First: Why So Many of Us are Reacting to Mask Mandates (or lack thereof)

Updated: Jan 10

Yes, I used the word reacting, and yes I used it intentionally. Across the country, school boards and governing bodies are finding themselves still elbow-deep in various reactions from parents, students, teachers, staff, and general community members regarding any and all decisions around masking.

While I am not going to attempt to answer whether or not our students should or should not be required to wear masks, I am going to unpack some of the neurological reasons why people are reacting (there's that heightened word again) so strongly to this issue.

Reaction has several definitions worth quick exploration. Reaction can mean a physical response or emotional feeling prompted by another event; reaction can refer to a person's ability to respond to such events; finally reaction can describe an adverse response to something that has been breathed in, ingested, or touched (ie, you are having an allergic reaction to peanut butter).

I suggest that many of us are reacting to the issue of masking in schools because we are feeling this issue at a core, neurological level: In various, often conflicting perspectives, the masks represent a concept of safety regarding our children.

If you believe that masks provide further protection against the virus and/or help reduce the transmittance of the virus (thus protecting others)--this is an issue of safety. Likewise, if you believe that requiring masks imposes on your parental/familial right to decide how to best protect your child, this is an issue of safety as well. And again, for all intents and purposes, I am not unpacking who is right or wrong in this scenario--I am simply trying to point out that regardless of which perspective you take, we are all feeling the same way.

The emotion of fear, itself, does not differentiate.

Our First Step: Name the Neuroscience

Neurologically, when we feel unsafe, our brains send us signals to help us survive. Translation: we go into fight or flight mode. According to Hilary Scarlett, author of Neuroscience for Organizational Change, "Fight or flight means that the brain and body get ready to deal with threat and send energy to those parts of our anatomy that are crucial in preserving us. Trigged by the amygdala, our hearts start to pound, digestion slows, the immune system is suppressed, and cortisol (the stress hormone) increases...the aroused amygdala means that we become anxious and start to see threats...uncertainty distorts our view of threats and can make them seem even worse" (30-31).

For some, the threat is COVID-19 or other community members (or government officials) who seek to prohibit mask-mandates for all students and staff. For others, the threat is lack of control to decide what is best for their children. Either way, the threats that people are feeling are as real to them as your threats are to you. We cannot argue a person's feelings, and simply dismissing one another, resorting to name-calling, or even physically attacking someone else will not in fact erase their fear or calm their amygdala.

As a society, we must recognize that many of our neighbors, colleagues, friends and families are lodged in their amygdala. That means, they are daily experiencing the fight or flight emotions that attach to repeated fear and trauma. Simply telling a person who is dysregulated that they are dysregulated does help them neurologically reset (or communally re-trust).

When we are caught in the repeating cycle of fight or flight, we feel alienated, isolated and alone. Like 22 in Disney's recent release, "Soul" we find ourselves trapped in a swirling cyclone of fear, distrust, and extreme stress. Social rejection is real and it hurts, and when we're stuck in our swirling cyclones, we often experience slowed work, weaker active reasoning, and less self-control (Scarlett 66).

Our Second Step: Create Connection

This is the hard part. The really, really hard part. The part that is so hard, so uncomfortable, so vulnerable, so foreign, so frightening, so risky, so...unsafe...that we just don't feel we venture into this space.

We must lean towards, not away, from one another. To borrow a well-used biblical reference we must be quick to listen and slow to speak. Why are we burrowing further and further and further into our fears? Because we feel unheard, unseen, unaccepted for our various viewpoints.

Remember, this is an issue of safety, and when we feel unsafe, neurologically we operate not in our pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that produces rational, strategic thinking). Our brains are hard-wired for predictability, certainty, and stability. When we perceive a change as a threat--we feel unsafe. Period. End of story. That's it. That's all.

We are social creatures. We have evolved to survive because of our social structures. We need one another, quite literally, to survive. That means, we must do the truly hard and difficult work of leaning in to conversation and connection, and listening. Someone in every relational cycle must be the one to step out of the conflict, out of the "fight" and view the situation objectively. Someone must recognize that the intolerance, attacks, and hateful displays are outward displays of very fearful individuals.

While it is entirely unacceptable to name-call, threaten, slander and spread falsities against our board members and school leaders, it is often the responsibility of these individuals to wear the objective hat in these sorts of crises and recognize the utter fear that is motivating such abhorrent actions. And, there is a difference between recognizing and accepting such actions from community members. It is absolutely unacceptable to speak to elected school officials and district leaders with vulgarity and disrespect.

Still, it absolutely is happening, and may continue to happen.

That's the uncomfortable position our leaders are in. Like parents who are uncertain how to calm their dysregulated, uncooperative, untrusting children--school leaders are trying to listen to, support, and calm dysregulated, uncooperative, untrusting parents on various sides of this issue. Fear is fear, regardless of our age, and when we are frightening enough, when we feel a strong enough absence of safety--we revert to neurologically predictable fight or flight tendencies.

Knowing the power is connection and empathy, and also knowing we can only control our own actions, school leaders are faced with the daunting task of modeling patient, respectful, open hearts and ears for their families until more and more are able to get out of their amygdala and back into their right mind (pre-frontal cortex, of course).

Our Third Step: Clarity

We 100% cannot communicate every decision or every potential decision to our stakeholders. No way, no how. Still, when our brains are stuck in uncertainty and unpredictability, we crave clarity where ever we can find it. Schools must invest time and energy to assess the effectiveness of their systems of communication regarding research, data, and processes followed to determine these decisions. Just because you share it does not mean people know where to find it.

Words are overwhelming. If the only way you are communicating changes and updates is through long, written text, you are failing to communicate clarity to a portion of your community. If you are publishing updates in one location on your website, and it is not clear or easy to find, you are failing to communicate clarity to a portion of your community. If parents need to scroll through a lengthy document to read updates on your policies, you are failing to communicate clarity.

Consider shortening your updates, using more graphics and visuals, and sharing video versions as well. Consider accessibility needs for community members (including various language translations and readability) as well as the effectiveness of your search tools. If parents need to click more than three times to find the update or information, you are failing to community clarity to a portion of your community.

Like we tell our teachers, it's not about what you taught, it's about what they learned. To our leaders I remind you, it's not about what you shared, it's about what they heard.

Words themselves matter and carry a tremendous amount of weight. Be quick to listen and slow to speak (in meetings). Be clear in your communication and truly consider the clarity of the content you share, and when.

Our Fourth Step: Continue to Celebrate and Support Staff and Students

Regardless of where your district finds themselves on any given day regarding masks and various COVID-19 protocols, remember that we are in the business of helping our children grow and learn. They themselves cannot grow and learn if they do not feel safe and secure.

Teachers are amazing, resilient, underappreciated heroes. They are smart, efficient, student-centered, loving humans. Celebrate and support your teachers. Listen to your teachers. Make time for your teachers. No one can teach our students the way our teachers can. NO ONE.

Just as it is unacceptable to attack school leaders, it is entirely unacceptable and in fact disgraceful to attack or question the teachers in our schools who are doing their absolute best to create safe spaces for our children. School leaders must also create spaces of safety for their staff. That is simply a non-negotiable.

Parents and community members are not the only ones experiencing a global pandemic that is impacting the lives of children they care about.

Teachers love and care about their students (and their students' families!) and want safety and security for all. They are individuals themselves, working to create and maintain a sense of security in their own lives. As a community, it is our duty to support and respect our teachers. When we disagree, we must do so in regulated, empathetic conversation, not hate-filled, aggressive attacks.

None of us knows what's around the next bend in the road, and the truth is we never really did. What we do know is that for people to feel safe once more, we must turn toward, not away, from another. We must be quick to listen and slow to speak. We must provide as much clarity as we can in moments when changes need to occur. And we must--we MUST--remember that fear does not differentiate.



Scarlett, Hilary. Neuroscience for Organizational Change: An Evidence-Based Practical Guide to Managing Change. Kogan Page Ltd, 2019.

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