The Impact of Masks On Children

The Impact of Masks On Children
  • Written by
  • Abby Beswick

Masks have been a constant feature in schools during the pandemic. Previously, it was compulsory for all students aged eight years and over to wear a face mask indoors and on school transport. Under the orange traffic light setting, masks are now strongly encouraged at school and still required on school transport for students aged 12 and older.

Mask requirements were set up to protect children and the community from the spread of infection. As COVID-19 lingers on and with common winter viruses making an unwelcome return, no doubt a lot of parents will continue sending their children to school in masks. But many are also asking: how are masks affecting our children?

Parents have raised concerns that wearing masks could impair their children’s ability to breathe, affect social and emotional development and cause them anxiety. Does the science back up these claims or is it simply ill-founded panic? And what are the advantages of masking our children?

Benefits of masking 

There’s no doubt wearing masks reduces the spread of COVID-19. A face mask helps stop the infection spreading when you speak, laugh, cough or sneeze. They are particularly useful in indoor spaces that are poorly ventilated and when physical distancing is hard.

Essentially, well-fitted, effective masks filter out some of the virus, making you less likely to breathe it in and get infected, says Alison Leversha, a paediatrician at Starship Hospital. This includes if you have COVID-19 but feel well or have no obvious symptoms. By wearing a mask you’re protecting yourself and those around you. “It’s a win-win situation, particularly if everyone wears them,” says Leversha.

Finding ways to un-mask

Most students have adapted quickly to wearing masks at school, according to feedback from principals around the country. Like most adults though, children don’t enjoy wearing them, so most schools have found ways to safely minimise the instances where masks are required.

Schools have used creative approaches to adapt classrooms and the way they teach, to make schooling as comfortable as possible, says NZ Principals’ Federation president Cherie Taylor- Patel. Teachers have looked for opportunities for students to socially distance while working, taught more classes outside and many schools have ‘mask breaks’, allowing students to safely take their mask off for a short time. Some schools have used spaces like the school hall or local community spaces like maraes, to accommodate classes.

Staff have also worked hard to help students understand how wearing masks keeps ourselves and others safe. This has helped reduce some of the angst around wearing them, says Taylor-Patel.

Emotional, psychological, social development 

Parents have cited concerns about how mask wearing could affect their children’s social, emotional and lingual development. While a masked environment can impact these things to some degree, scientific studies have shown this is more pronounced for very young children. For children aged eight and older, the effects are considered to be much smaller.

We communicate in a lot of ways — not just talking,” says Leversha. Facial expressions and body language also play a big part. Studies have shown children can tune into these different communication cues and gestures, when a person’s mouth isn’t visible.

While children may miss out on occasional social cues or misinterpret someone’s emotions because of masks, this isn’t likely to have a significant impact on communication, according to studies. In addition, children who wear masks at school are also getting exposed to other mask-free environments where they will learn these skills, for example at home.

While most children are able to wear masks without any problems, for some children this isn’t possible. Children who have a hearing impairment or autism for example, cannot function when their mouth is covered.

It’s too early to know if there will be any long-term impact on children from wearing masks, but there are unlikely to be, say experts. Ultimately, the benefits outweigh any negatives, says Leversha “Everything is a balance of risk versus benefits, and on balance wearing masks is protective and I have no hesitation in recommending that kids should be doing that.

Optimising ventilation 

Along with mask wearing and good hygiene, ventilation is another important factor in a school’s ability to minimise the risk of COVID-19 transmission. We now have a better understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted, says Leversha. “Think of a spread like smoke rather than large drops of rain. So one of the best things we can do is have healthy air.”

New Zealand classrooms range from brand new to 150 years old, so ventilation differs vastly from school to school. Using doors and windows for natural ventilation is very effective but isn’t an option in every classroom.

The other way to reduce the viral load in the air is to purify it with a machine. Air cleaners are now available to schools, and are a powerful tool for reducing the risk of transmission. The first 500 air cleaners were delivered to schools in March, with a further 4,500 to be delivered to targeted schools in June.

The air cleaners will be particularly helpful where classrooms aren’t well ventilated and in colder areas where it’s not practical to have doors and windows open for fresh air flow.

Schools will also receive a ventilation self assessment kit with a portable CO2 monitor they can use to help identify areas of concern and the right approaches to improve ventilation.

How can parents help?

As we continue to protect our families and communities through the next phase of the pandemic, it’s likely students will continue to be encouraged to wear masks at school for the foreseeable future. So what can parents do to help children feel safe and secure while wearing them?

Normalise mask wearing. We need to create a mask-wearing culture so it becomes something everyone does, says Leversha. In Japan for example, people wear masks every winter to reduce the transmission of viruses and that’s considered culturally normal. At Newmarket School in Auckland, everyone wears masks at school regardless of their age, because that’s the school culture.

Explain how masks protect ourselves and others. Talk to your children about why we’re wearing masks so they understand the reasons behind it, says Leversha. “Wearing masks is a kindness.”

Choose masks that work and fit well. Leversha recommends the N95, KN95 and KN94, which are widely considered the most effective. Earloop buckles can adjust the mask to make sure it fits against the face. The better quality and better fit, the better protection.

With our borders reopening, New Zealand is expected to get an influx of respiratory illnesses including RSV, influenza and measles, as well as COVID-19. Having quality air standards in enclosed spaces and wearing masks are our best defence, says Leversha. “At the end of the day, masks are one of those layers of protection and they’re quite an important layer.”

Leversha and other experts say there’s no evidence they harm kids developmentally. “As far as we know masks are safe for children.” When considering the pros and cons of wearing a mask versus not wearing a mask, the decision “falls very easily on wearing a mask because it’s safer for the child plus also safer for the people around them,” she says.

Face masks help keep kids and communities safe. Teaching our children why we wear masks not only helps them understand the reasons, it normalises mask wearing, which is one of our best defences against COVID-19 and other airborne diseases.

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