Some teachers are worried about the long-term effects of masking

Rebecca Bodenheimer

Since schools reopened this fall, many parents have turned their attention to school mask mandates, frustrated by the continuing refrains of “kids are resilient.” In fact, plenty of kids and parents think indefinite masking is a big deal — whether because they make it harder for kids to breathe or to communicate with teachers. There’s been a general refusal by Democrats to acknowledge that prolonged masking has any downsides, despite the obvious barrier they present to interacting with others. How many press conferences have we witnessed where speakers walk up to the podium masked and immediately remove them in order to be understood?

For some students with disabilities, like deafness, autism, and dyslexia, masks aren’t only a nuisance, but actively harmful. We’ve heard many anecdotes about kids being forced to do speech therapy while masked or while their therapists are masked. English language learners, who learn by connecting spoken words with facial cues and mouth formation, are also negatively affected. And masking kids under five, which many blue states do, not only contradicts the recommendations of the World Health Organization, but also puts us at odds with all of Europe. Several public health experts recently published an article entitled, “Making pre-school children wear masks is bad public health.”

Since Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom haven’t been responsive to parents speaking about the potential harms of prolonged masking, we decided to speak to teachers who have similar concerns.

It makes teaching harder

Sarah Curry teaches in a rural district in California’s Central Valley. She says when she gives spelling tests the kids can’t understand her, so she ends up pulling her mask down in order to enunciate. She also has a few shy students who tend to speak so quietly that she has to ask them to pull down their masks. Students with glasses have a particularly hard time, she said, adding, “Honestly I’ve stopped wearing mine. I’ll just deal with not being able to see very well because I can’t handle the foggy glasses.” But kids who wear reading glasses don’t have that option.

Most concerning is that Curry’s students with asthma sometimes complain they can’t breathe; they ask to stand outside so they can unmask for a few minutes. Luckily her district doesn’t require outdoor masking, a policy virtually all Bay Area and Los Angeles students are subjected to that goes above and beyond the California Department of Public Health guidelines. But the Central Valley has also had to worry about bad air quality days, Curry said, when it’s not healthy for kids to be unmasked outside.

Curry believes most parents would prefer masking be optional: “For me, that’s the hardest internal dilemma. I know that I’m going against what some parents want when I tell their kids to put their mask on.” Although there have been cases of Covid-19 at her school, and even kids who have lost loved ones, she said, “I don’t think the mask is the factor that is going to save us all…it’s just a hoop we have to jump through so that the doors can be open.” She said most of her colleagues view masking similarly.

Chrisann Justice also thinks masks are largely performative, rather than an effective public health measure. She’s a high school teacher in a small, remote Alaskan village called Utqiaġvik, one of the northernmost locales in the world. Justice estimates that half the town — a mix of Alaska Natives (Iñupiat mostly), whites, various Asian and Pacific Islander groups, and some Latinos — doesn’t really care about masking, but are afraid of being accused of harming others.

Justice teaches Spanish and Iñupiaq (the local native language), and has always used music and games as teaching tools in her 35-year career. Now, her students don’t want to sing because it’s just too much effort, she said: “Who wants to sing when you can barely breathe?” She also reported having trouble understanding her masked students, which is particularly difficult as a language teacher: “I’ve lost track of how many times I have to go up to the students, stand a foot from their face and have them repeat it over and over again. You can only do that so often before you’re just like, this is all futile. Why are we doing this?”

Expressing a similar sense of exasperation was Ileana Almog, a preschool teacher in Seattle. Her local health department strongly recommends that children two to five are masked, but does not require it. But teachers follow parents’ lead, she said, and “all of our parents have been quite adamant that their kids should be wearing a mask and they want us to enforce that.” Nonetheless, Almog noted that “most of the time the mask doesn’t fit properly or slides down around the nose or gets clogged with saliva and boogers.” In fact, respiratory viruses other than Covid-19 have continued to circulate in her preschool, she said.

More importantly, Almog sees a difference in the quality of her interactions with preschoolers while masked, saying it’s harder for children to hear each other and for adults to hear them, especially when “most young preschoolers’ speech is not standard to begin with.” It’s also more challenging for kids to play cooperatively with half their faces covered, and to assess others’ emotions, so the kids refer more to the adults than to their peers, she said: they know adults are safe, while “a peer is much more of an unknown quantity.” Almog herself has blogged extensively on the topic.

She added that the period between two and seven years old is critical for learning how to read faces, and believes there may be significant impairments down the road for young kids whose skills don’t develop during this period because they can’t see each other. Published research backs up her claims.

The mental health impacts of masking

While social-emotional learning is the bulk of what preschoolers do, masking may also be affecting school-aged kids’ social development and mental health.

Justin Spiro is a social worker at a public high school in Queens, New York. He was one of the loudest critics of school closures last year, and has continued to advocate for getting kids back to a pre-pandemic school experience. While he recognizes this year is much better than last year — when he had no ability to actually do his job (assessing kids’ mental health) without seeing them in-person — he still thinks masking needs to be discontinued.

“Nonverbal body language is a huge part of how human beings communicate,” Spiro said. “So talking to a depressed kid or a kid who comes in with some trauma or some horrible experience that happened over the weekend and we’re both masked [is hard].” Being masked also compounds the difficulty of returning to school after 18 months, he said: “Now they’re trying to pick up the pieces and form bonds again, and they’re seeing a quarter of each other’s faces.”

“Those 18 months really screwed over our kids,” he continued. “It exacerbated what existing issue they had. The anxious ones are now completely socially paralyzed. The ones who had more dysregulation are more aggressive.” Given that this is a year of recovery, masking doesn’t help: “It definitely hampers social interaction and kids’ own emotional development.” In addition, kids who are self-conscious may feel masks are a security blanket, he said, but it’s developmentally appropriate for them to “have to show their face anyway.”

Curry also finds it difficult to assess how her preteen students are feeling. “There’s a couple that I think hide behind their masks, they’ll put their hoodies on and you can just see their eyes a little bit. I don’t know if they’re bringing in recess drama.” This can play out in peer interactions “if they’re not able to read what the other person is feeling visually” — in other words, they might assume a peer is being shady and misread their intentions.

Justice, who described her students as “scraping the bottom of the barrel,” is worried about a possible increase in suicide, which is more common among Alaskan youth. She recently sent a statement to her HR director that read: “In a place like the North Slope [which currently experiences zero minutes of sunlight per day], my greatest concern is depression…some of our COVID mitigation strategies are affecting our students and staff’s moods…If we’re going to keep teachers sane, we can’t afford to add these frustrations to what is already a challenging job.”

What’s the end game?

It has been deeply frustrating for Spiro, as well as many parents, that policymakers in blue states won’t even acknowledge the possibility that masks could be harmful. They seem to think: “What’s the difference if it’s not hurting anyone? Just make everyone mask all the time!” Like in many California districts, students in New York City have to mask outdoors as well as indoors, even if they’re vaccinated. Spiro said that seeing 15-year-olds fully vaccinated and playing basketball with masks on “really drains you of hope, because if that’s the standard we’re going for, that everyone must be fully vaccinated and then we’re still gonna wear masks most of the time, there’s no end game.”

It’s especially illogical because adults are packing sports stadiums, Spiro said, and are responsible for 95% of Covid-19 spread: “Why are we trying to prevent the other five…by depriving kids of actual developmental experiences?” Even now that all students are vaccine-eligible, he sees districts and politicians doubling down on masking.

This is also the case in Seattle, where Almog lives, despite the fact that European countries have handled masking kids so differently: most recommend masking for kids 12 and older, but none mask kids under five. “The rest of the world is doing different things and they’re not seeing worse outcomes,” she said. “Why are we holding onto our conservatism?”

Finally, it’s not only kids who stand to benefit from public health officials establishing off-ramps to masking. Curry said, “There are times where I’ll look up and I’m like, ‘oh man, [my student is] smiling a lot today. Oh, wait. I’m not supposed to know he’s smiling’…I’m not supposed to see that.” It is moments like these that make teachers realize what both they and their students are missing out on while masked.

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