HARRISBURG, Pa. — Inside fourth period algebra class at Susquehanna Township High School, around two dozen kids sit laser-focused. Their eyes tell the story. Every few seconds, darting up towards the front of the room as their teacher, Christine Ross, scribbles an equation on the electronic whiteboard, then shooting down to make the proper notes.
"Twelve plus 'y'—are we done?" Ross asks the class to solve one of the problems, then deadpan answers herself: "Never. The fun never ends."
The fun hasn't ended for Ross, even as the teaching has become more difficult over the past year and a half.
Students and faculty at Susquehanna Township have been wearing face coverings since returning to in-person learning last spring. This semester is the first where a large majority of the kids are back in person.
Pennsylvania's Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam issued an order at the start of the school year that all Pa. schools must enforce mask-wearing as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19. Susquehanna Township was already planning on making face coverings mandatory.
As a result, students in Ross' class who are used to having to concentrate extra hard at reading numbers, having now added another dimension to their learning capabilities: reading faces.
"I've always prided myself on making connections with the kids and getting to know them," Ross said. "The masking has just increased our need to really pay attention to kids."
More than any other year, she adds, there's been an added focus this school year on focusing on students' body language. When half of someone's face is covered up, how do you get a read on what someone is thinking, especially in a subject, like algebra, which can confuse even the best of us?
Ross believes masks have actually helped make her a better teacher, and it starts with her student's eyes.
"You can tell when someone is smiling. Their cheeks go up and their eyes go up. Or if they're sad, they might look down or away. If they're frustrated you might have the middle of the eye doing its thing," she says, furrowing her brow downward. "The more that we can zone in on those things, it becomes easier and easier to read the eyes."
The same goes for her students, who have had to adapt just as much with teachers wearing masks as they've adapted to students.
Paige Mullins, a senior at Susquehanna Township, admits she was nervous at the start of the school year. Would other students be open to wearing masks properly? Would the school enforce proper mask-wearing? Once that happened, she said, it allowed her to be more comfortable with learning, and focus on the next challenge: doing so while being unable to see her teachers talk.
"Sometimes it’s difficult to communicate with your teacher in a nonverbal way," Mullins admits. "They have to make sure they are looking at almost every kid in the eye. We have to make sure we're looking back at them and on the same page."
She says, much like her teacher, going to school during a pandemic has made her better at reading body language.
It's also made high school better, for some, from a social perspective.
Junior Ava Waters says the impersonal nature of masks have helped even the oftentimes cutthroat social playing field that is high school.
"I’ve noticed that I’ve become a lot more extroverted," Waters said. "I feel the need to go to people more and talk to them. Now that we have the masks, I (feel like I) should be talking to more people and getting to know everyone."
Talking to everybody, meanwhile, is something teachers like Christine Ross were already doing.
Even as some schools across Pennsylvania go back to optional mask-wearing come Dec. 6, per an order by a Commonwealth Court judge, Ross believes the lessons learned teaching over the past few months won't go away any time soon.
"We're not just teachers," she said. "We are guidance counselors and therapists and nurses, so talking to [students] and being able to give them all the things that they need to be successful academically is really the goal."