To mask or not to mask? That is the question... Or is it?
Updated: Apr 14, 2022
As I sit at my classroom desk writing these sentences, I am mask-free. It feels strange and a bit uncomfortable.
Collectively, we have been wearing masks for the last two years. I remember when the pandemic first began for us in America, and I frantically sewed cloth masks for my family using tutorials from the internet, because officials asked us to “save” surgical masks for our medical workers. I remember being so worried about the fit and if the virus would outsmart my barely adequate sewing skills.
As we moved through the pandemic, better masks could be purchased from Etsy, then Amazon, then Wal-Mart, and Target. Suddenly, masks were everywhere, even on the ground as litter. Somewhere along the way, masks also became a dividing line. Those who thought them to be unnecessary, even damaging to the mental and physical health of children, and those who felt that masks were the only thing keeping them healthy, and maybe even alive.
Here we are today, at the two-year anniversary and most mask mandates have been lifted in schools around the country. However, the virus is still with us lurking in the coughs and sneezes of people all over the world. Like the flu, it will be with us always, and like the flu, it will be mild in some people, severe in some, and deadly for others. So, is this pandemic over, sadly, not for everyone.
Given that we are still in a pandemic, should children continue to wear masks or not?
Well, that may not be the question we should be asking. I think most people would agree that if a child has a compromised immune system, it is a good idea to protect them with any tool available, including masks. But what if they have a robust immune system?
I work in an elementary school as a kindergarten teacher to 18 five-year-old students. If you have been a teacher or hosted a birthday party with more than seven five-year-old kids running around, you might understand the analogy of it being like “herding cats”. Now, imagine trying to get said kiddos to properly wear a mask over their nose and mouth all day. So, in a way, it was a relief when we were given a date that masks would no longer be required at school. Then, it felt a little scary. I was worried about my student who has asthma and my student whose grandma is battling cancer. If we stopped wearing masks, would we be contributing to the possibility of them taking something home that could be dangerous or deadly to them or a loved one?
Of course, those students could wear a mask to protect themselves and/or a family member, and I have a couple who have continued to wear a mask with the full support of me and our class. We talked about why someone might still want to wear a mask at school, and we understood that they have a choice. Protecting themselves and their grandma is a great reason to continue to wear a mask. No, I don’t believe the question is whether students should wear a mask. Clearly, that is a personal choice based on need.
A more interesting question is, why are some students choosing to wear a mask when there may be no health benefit to themselves or a family member. Sure, they could be doing it for the greater good, protecting classmates with unknown conditions by masking around them, but after talking with some of the older students I found a story began to emerge.
It is no secret that tweens and teens struggle with body image and any number of anxieties daily. It was true when my mom was young, when I was young, when my own children were young, and it seems to be growing more intense for today’s youth with the scrutiny provided by strangers on the internet. This is where the interesting question about masks makes an entrance. I was told by these tweens and teens that masks help them to feel more secure! The introverts felt more confident participating in class when they had the mask to “hide behind”. Students struggling with acne felt less self-conscious speaking up in class when all eyes turned to look at them as they spoke. Even the seemingly confident students voiced their appreciation of being able to “mask up” on days they were feeling “off” or on days when they wanted to “hide from the world”. Based on what I was hearing, masks were providing a form of “protection” that I could have never imagined.
I understand that some people still feel that masks hurt our youth more than they help, but maybe they are not seeing the whole picture. Yes, my kinders benefit from seeing my mouth as I pronounce letter sounds and words, but the older kids know their letter sounds and, in a world where they are subjected to a barrage of uncomfortable situations, maybe wearing a mask is the panacea they need to not only get them through a global pandemic, but through some of the roughest years, any adult had to face. Given the opportunity to do it all over again, perhaps a mask would have been a blessing as I navigated those treacherous teen years. As we move forward without the mask mandates, perhaps we let the kids choose what is best for them and consider the mask questions answered.
Please believe me when I tell you, “The kids are alright.”