The ideal “classroom” is often considered as being a place of openness, creativity, acceptance, and above all safety; safety for the child to test and affirm concepts, but also physical safety, from violence, harassment and illnesses. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which began in the Spring of 2020, brought great disruption to the traditional education system, as we knew it. Conventional learning environments, with face-to-face instruction, ceased to exist, in a world that transitioned to online instruction, in efforts to eliminate – or at the very least – limit the spread of the fatal virus.
Today, as the Covid-19 pandemic begins to lift, many schools across the United States have begun considering additional protective measures for students from exposure while returning back home that could have been present on school grounds during this time period. A common suggestion is requiring children to wear masks upon return; the topic has sparked much debate amongst families and institutions, alike.
Should children be required to wear masks upon returning to school? Masks offer safety for children and protect parents at home, but evidence suggests it weakens natural immunity and can inhibit learning. The benefits are clear; less likelihood of viral or bacterial infection in areas where there may be high numbers of students who have recently been exposed to severe pathogens; but are masks more of a hindrance than help?
First, let’s consider the benefits. Foremost, protection from infection and limitation of the spread of illness. Viral and bacterial pathogens, which are typically airborne and transmitted through direct contact or entry through the nose, mouth or eyes are the most common cause of infectious diseases. Masks function by preventing the inhalation of bacteria and viruses, as well as decreasing direct contact with respiratory fluids. This is accomplished by preventing droplets from landing on the nose or mouth (or other body parts) that may lead to infection via indirect routes such as touching one’s eyes afterward.
Even predating the outbreak of Covid-19, there have been hundreds of published studies which have verified the functionality of masks. For instance, results from an observational study of people wearing masks in public found that respiratory viruses were about one-fourth as likely to be present on the exterior surfaces of nylon surgical masks worn by those who had a cold or influenza, compared with this who did not sport a mask. While most young children are at relatively low risk for developing complications, the greater concern is that young, healthy, low-risk youth could become a vector to carry the virus home to older parents, or high-risk family members. For these reasons, requiring children to wear masks for their own personal safety, and the safety of their families at home, seems logical.
There is no doubt that sporting masks in the classroom prevent children’s from spreading illness to elderly, or high-risk family members, but exactly how beneficial is it for the child’s personal health? At first thought, it would seem favorable to protect children from personal exposure to pathogens, however, evidence suggests that it can inhibit learning. The body’s natural immunity is strengthened if the child suffers a small illness, and this would be thwarted by wearing masks all day. The immune system functions by using exposure to harmful pathogens, such as a bacteria, virus or fungus, to create antibodies, which are proteins specifically designed to recognize and destroy pathogens. Throughout early childhood years, this process is extremely important to establish strong immunity against a variety of pathogens, which will function into adult life. The process works much quicker and more efficiently at younger ages, when cells have greater plasticity and ability to replicate. Preventing or reducing exposure to pathogens during childhood years puts children at risk of developing a weakened immune system or compromised immune response into adulthood.
On a more superficial note, prolonged wearing of masks can cause discomfort and unsettlement for both adults and children, alike. Young children in school already struggle with shorter attention spans and a narrower range of focus, which is only worsened by sporting a mask. Wearing a mask can inhibit respiration and breathing, which limits the intake of oxygen to a child’s brain. Adequate oxygen levels are necessary for basic cognitive function, especially in a learning environment which requires extensive mental attention.
Many children report feeling claustrophobic wearing a mask, and from research performed with students who wear masks at school, it has been concluded that long-term use of face coverings can actually weaken natural immunity. Prolonged wearing of face coverings, throughout the entire duration of a 5-6 hour school day, interferes with proper respiration and induces discomfort and stress for children. High levels of stress affect the release of cortisol, which is known to be associated with higher blood pressure, impaired cognitive processing, and lowered immunity. Thus, masks worn by children in schools could both directly and indirectly harm physical health and impair learning.
So what can be concluded? While it is clear that wearing masks in schools hinders learning and has the potential to be a significant health risk for children, the advantages are clear: masks prevent the spread of infection and can help protect children, and more importantly children’s families, from getting sick. With such compelling pros and cons to both perspectives, perhaps the ideal solution would be to allow parents to make the decision with best interests in mind for their children and their households.