There was the public school teacher who resigned after 14 years of teaching because of the state’s mask mandate. The mother of two, concerned about her children’s mental health. The father of four who said his children can’t breathe or function with masks on. 

One after another, angry parents and community members took to the microphone at last month’s contentious nine-hour Hawaii Board of Education meeting to vent their frustration about masks in schools, in a scene that would have been equally familiar to school leaders in Tennessee, California or Illinois

School boards across the county have been the focus of so much intense wrath during the pandemic, that the FBI started meeting with local law enforcement agencies last October to address the growing threats to school boards and teachers. 

But while the anger of many parents in Hawaii over masking mandates in schools is not unique, at this point in the pandemic the state’s masking policies are. 

People in opposition to the Department of Education's mask mandate hold a sign at the DOE board meeting.
People in opposition to the Department of Education’s mask mandate hold a sign at a DOE board meeting in May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Hawaii was one of the first states to institute a statewide mask mandate and now it is the last to still require students to mask up at school. 

Months after indoor masking requirements were dropped in Hawaii (for most places except schools) even parents who support masking and vaccines are beginning to despair about what impact this might be having on their kids, or how to get toddlers — an age notorious for temper tantrums and a lack of self-control – to wear the masks they need to in order to attend preschool or even many daycares in the state. 

“How many of you have children currently in the public school system?” one frustrated parent demanded of school board members last month. “Have your children been masked at school?”

Health officials have debunked the idea that masks prevent children from breathing or getting enough oxygen, but are masks detrimental to children in other ways? 

There are genuine reasons to be concerned about the impacts of the pandemic — including masking — on children’s development. 

But researchers who are in the midst of studying these very issues, say there’s also a lot to be hopeful about, from what we know about how children are able to pick up emotional cues despite facial coverings to the incredible resiliency of those early years. 

“We have so little information right now, but I’m really optimistic that it won’t be long term, across the board effects on kids,” said Elizabeth Spencer Norton, an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Chicago who is studying the impacts of the pandemic on language development. 

Two years into the pandemic, here’s what we know — and don’t know — about the impacts of masking on kids. 

Why The Science Is Slow

If there’s one thing most development experts seem to agree on, it’s that little kids generally do better with in-person learning than they do with remote learning. 

Even worse than remote learning is switching frequently between the two modes of education. 

A recent study out of Harvard followed 350 children between the ages of 6 and 8 in the spring of 2021, during a time of educational instability in Massachusetts. More than half of the students in the group changed learning formats at least once during the four-month period. 

Children exhibited worse behavior, including aggression and temper tantrums, when learning remotely, said researcher Emily Hanno. 

“What we think is, learning on a screen is not the cause, it’s the disruptive changing in routines,” Hanno said.  “This aligns broadly with what we know about how stress impacts behaviors. Children thrive with routines and consistency.”

This information lands squarely in the “kids wearing masks at school is a good thing” bucket. Studies at this point have also shown that universal masking in schools significantly reduces the spread of Covid and that masking in child care facilities reduced facility closures by 13%. In other words, masking can help schools and daycare facilities stay open.

St. Ann School students in their classroom wear their masks and have their desks spaced apart during the COVID-19 pandemic.
St. Ann School students in their classroom wear their masks and have their desks spaced apart during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s not much data on the impacts of masking on learning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

That’s where a lot of the scientific consensus on masking in schools ends.

When it comes to how various aspects of the pandemic — including masking — are affecting childhood development, there’s a lot that we still don’t know.

“The frustrating answer is we still have very little good information scientifically about the different kinds of effects,” Spencer Norton said. 

One reason for that is that it simply takes time for scientists to gather and analyze information. Some scientists are trying to expedite that process by making their research available before it is peer reviewed, but that means there still aren’t many peer-reviewed studies out there yet about the impacts of the pandemic on kids. 

The other challenge, Spencer Norton says, is that it’s really hard to separate out what might be impacting students. Is it wearing a mask or being around other people wearing a mask, or is it getting sick or changes to their routine or the stress their parents are under? 

Adding to the challenge of conducting research is that the very way we assess children’s development is being impacted by the pandemic.

Childhood development assessments are usually done by a clinician or researcher interacting with a child, perhaps playing with them on the floor or asking the child questions. There have been some studies showing a drop in young children meeting development benchmarks during the pandemic, but Spencer Norton says it’s uncertain what impact the child and the researcher both wearing masks might have on the interaction. In other words, masking and the stress of interacting with strangers might be impacting how well students do on these assessments. 

Reasons for Concern And Hope

The social and emotional development of children — particularly very young children — is a big concern for many parents and early childhood advocates. 

Children between the critical ages of 2 and 5 — when so much brain development happens — have now spent a large part of their life in an environment where most people are wearing masks, points out Danny Goya, a trauma-informed care trainer in Hawaii who said he knows children who have gotten so used to wearing masks that they were extremely afraid of strangers without masks on. 

Goya is careful to say that he understands the safety reasons for masking and social distancing, and supports both health measures. 

But Goya believes children are also being stunted when it comes to social and emotional development during the pandemic. 

One piece of positive news on the social-emotional front, is that preliminary data shows minimal impacts from masking on children’s ability to recognize emotions. 

Maui Baldwin HS
The head of the teacher’s union said he supports safety measures that help keep students in the classroom. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is funding several studies on the impacts of masking and the pandemic on early childhood development that are ongoing. In the meantime, it did an internal review of existing small-scale studies looking at the effects of masking on childhood development and found little evidence of any significant impact of masking, said James Griffin, who heads the NICHD’s Child Development and Behavior Branch. 

It turns out there’s actually a fair amount of research on what areas of the face children focus on to be able to determine emotions, Griffin said. 

“The truth of the matter is a lot of it is in the eyes and things of that nature, which are not covered by masks,” Griffin said. 

A bigger concern, Griffin said, is the impact of masks on language development. Masks can have an effect on children being able to hear certain sounds and also on how their speech is perceived by teachers — especially in early grades. 

“The difference between a ‘d’ as in ‘dog’ and ‘b’ as in ‘bad,’” Griffin said. “When you’re wearing a mask, some of those can be muffled. And when you’re teaching the child to read, that’s actually very important.”

One challenge with tracking developmental delays in the pandemic is also that because many parents were skipping in-person appointments, some of the developmental delays that are coming out in reports are the result of parent reporting, Griffin said. 

While parental measures of their children’s development are important, parents aren’t necessarily the assessors of their own children’s development.

“I’ve seen a mixed bag of some things that are highlighting potential delays, others that are not finding that,” Griffin said. “What I would say is at this point of the pandemic, if there were widespread developmental delays, I would think there would be more calls of alarm and action by pediatricians.”

When Does It End?

Several of the national experts Civil Beat spoke to for this story were surprised that Hawaii schools were still implementing universal masking. While careful to express support for masking as a safety measure, they initially spoke about the educational impacts of masking as something that children weren’t experiencing much anymore. 

Hawaii has had some of the highest per-capita case rates in the nation this spring, a likely factor in the Department of Education decision to continue masking. The DOE did not respond to a request for comment about what factors would influence the timing of when schools would end universal masking. 

Osa Tui, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Union, said he supports any measures that keeps students safe and learning in classrooms. And he would like to see cases lower before universal masking ends. But, Tui said, “at some point we are going to have to get away from masking. That is a given.” 

Teacher support for masking, meanwhile, appears to be waning a bit. In an informal survey of union members in February, 63% of respondents said they supported mandatory masking requirements. In April, that number had dropped to 47%.

The stress that masking — or not masking — puts on teachers and parents should perhaps be a factor in the ongoing debate of “to mask or not to mask.” 

Because the mental and emotional well-being of parents and teachers is likely the biggest factor in how well kids will emerge from the pandemic.

Parents need to be aware of how their child is doing. They need to resume well-child visits to their pediatrician — if they haven’t already, Griffin said. But as children get back into daycare facilities and schools and life begins to resume more normalcy, children will rebound. 

“Children are very resilient,” Griffin said. “I think the worst thing we can do right now is stress out parents.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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