Weighing your child’s mental wellness against the risks to their physical health is never easy, but parents have been tasked with this conundrum again and again during the pandemic. Now many kids are headed back to school just as the Delta variant is surging and parents are one again faced with difficult questions: In school districts without mask mandates, what should parents do if masks are voluntary? Do they force their kids to wear one when nobody else around them is? How will this decision impact a child’s mental health? Will wearing a mask in a school where nobody else is even keep your kid safe and protected?
These are big questions that deserve real answers. While it is up to every individual parent to do what is best for their own child, Romper reached out to several pediatricians and child development experts to ask for their advice.
National Health Organizations Recommend Masking In Schools
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that masks be worn indoors in schools by all teachers, staff, students, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also urges parents to send their children to school in masks whether they’re vaccinated or not.
Despite this guidance on a national scale, mask mandates vary state to state and district to district across the nation. This leaves the choice in some areas up to parents to decide whether or not their child should wear a mask to school.
Do Masks Even Work If Not Everyone Is Wearing One?
The answer to this question isn’t clear. Dr. Sarah Schaffer, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital, says that to date, she is “not aware of data specifically about risk of infection in masked children who are around unmasked children.” However, Schaffer does point to “reports out of North Carolina and Georgia that demonstrated the effectiveness of masks and multiple layers of prevention in protecting children in schools from infection with Covid-19.”
It can also be helpful to look to what the experts themselves are doing for their own families. “As a mom and doctor, I would absolutely encourage parents to make their children wear masks — especially in areas that are seeing an increase of Covid infections,” Dr. LaTasha Perkins, a family physician in Washington, D.C., tells Romper. “The Delta variant continues to infect children at an increasing rate, so even if your school district isn’t mandating masks, data shows that your children and your family will be more protected wearing one.”
For parents who are worried about their kids being the only children at school who are masked up, pediatricians can only say that they are hopeful that few children will be put in that position. “Whether mask are mandatory at school or not, I am cautiously optimistic that most students and staff will be wearing a mask when indoors in light of the current surge with the Delta variant. So I don’t believe children wearing mask will be terribly outnumbered,” pediatrician Dr. Candice W. Jones tells Romper.
How To Talk To Your Kids About Wearing A Mask At School When Others Are Not
One huge hurdle for parents of school-aged kids in mask-optional areas is how to convince their child that wearing a mask is necessary when other students and even teachers around them are not. It’s never easy to be the only kid doing something, and most of these kids just spent a full school year in a mask or behind a screen. The peer pressure they may feel to unmask could be intense.
Don’t issue an edict; instead, explain to your kids why masks are important. “Parents should discuss their family’s values when addressing masking, such as protecting the health of the child and household members, as well as protecting the community,” Schaffer says. “They should also highlight the benefits of masking — that masks will keep the child healthy, prevent school absences due to illness, allow the child to more safely interact with friends, and hopefully slow local disease transmission within households and communities.” Schaffer also recommends that parents let their children choose their own mask.
Experts also say that modeling consistent mask-wearing can help your child make better sense of your decision despite seeing others making different choices.
“Particularly in areas that are high risk and have high COVID-19 infections, it’s important for parents to model mask-wearing themselves and as a family. By doing this, mask-wearing will become second nature for kids and prevent them from feeling isolated at school if others aren’t wearing one,” Perkins tells Romper. “For my family, we choose to consistently wear masks to protect each other and my child’s classmates. As parents, it’s important to consistently have conversations with your kids and explain to our children that masks will protect themselves, their family, teachers, and classmates.”
How To Discuss Your Decision To Mask With Your Child’s Teacher
Another big area of concern for parents is whether or not they will have an ally inside of the classroom, helping to keep their child in a mask all day. After all, even the best kids will bend the rules when they get the opportunity — especially if they’re itchy, uncomfortable, or hot in their mask.
“I absolutely encourage parents to talk to teachers and others involved with their child’s care to request that your child be encouraged, reminded, and supported in wearing a mask when indoors at school,” Jones says. “Share evidence from the CDC or AAP to support your wishes and educate others. Check in periodically to make sure your child is wearing their mask, washing/sanitizing their hands and other items, and keeping distance when appropriate.”
While there is no way to guarantee that your child’s teachers will reinforce your wishes regarding masking, it’s up to parents to take the first step and have the conversation. “If you want them to help ensure that your child is wearing a mask during the day, make that request,” Perkins tells Romper. “It’s your child’s right to wear a mask and feel safe and comfortable while at school.”
For Perkins, masking in the classroom is a safety issue, and one that she feels schools should take more seriously. “Schools need to understand that Covid-19 should be treated the same way as other medical conditions,” she says. “For instance, many schools take things like peanut allergies very seriously, and teachers would address something like that in a classroom. Mask wearing should be held to the same standard.”
The Mask Decision & Your Child’s Mental Health
If masks are not mandated, your child absolutely will encounter others in their school who aren’t masked. In addition to explaining how masks protect your child and those around them, Perkins says, “Teaching your children how to set boundaries for themselves when others aren’t wearing a mask in school can also help them feel comfortable and safe.”
This type of boundary-setting can be a big lesson for kids regarding mental health awareness. “With our kids being pulled out of school due to the pandemic and now returning to a very different environment, mental health impacts are a new and emerging issue,” Perkins tells Romper. “Parents should monitor their children’s mental health as they go back to school and make it a daily conversation to gauge how their kids are feeling and even how they’re being treated in school, especially if they’re one of the few wearing masks. Mental well-being has a significant impact on physical and emotional health, which in turn can impact a child’s learning.”
In other words, the conversation around mask wearing can be part of a larger, ongoing discussion about how we’re all doing, the decisions we’re making to keep ourselves safe, and how we feel about the stresses of the pandemic.
Dr. Candice W. Jones, board certified pediatrician, author of High Five Discipline: Positive Parenting for Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Kids
Dr. LaTasha Perkins, MD, a family physician in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Sarah Schaffer, pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital