If and when kids return to the classroom this fall, kids can expect a whole list of guidelines to follow to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Whether your child has started out in the classroom or you’re hoping she gets there soon, one of the most challenging precautions for kids will be wearing a face mask or covering throughout the day with little-to-no breaks.
“This school year is going to look and feel a lot different than in past years, so we have to help kids prepare by setting their expectations,” said Dr. Mallory Zehe, a pediatric psychologist in Akron Children’s Lois and John Orr Family Behavioral Health Center. “Face masks are essential for kids to safely return to school and other group settings, but before we can ask kids to wear face masks, it’s important they understand the job of the mask.”
For younger children, it’s best to explain the importance in simple terms — I wear a mask to protect you, and you wear a mask to protect me. Let your child know how wearing a face mask can block sneezes and coughs to keep germs away that could make us sick.
For adolescents and teens, understanding the science behind mask wearing can be motivating. You can also talk about social responsibility and how wearing a face mask helps all of us.
To help kids prepare for a year full of firsts, Dr. Zehe answers your top questions about face masks and how to get your children to wear them in the classroom.
How can I get my children to comply?
Parents can encourage and motivate their kids to wear masks by trying the following:
- Practice, practice, practice. Practice wearing masks at home to get kids used to the sensation and how they look, so when they go to school it’s not brand new.
- Incorporate a daily “mask-on moment.” To help kids get used to wearing face coverings, incorporate mask wearing during a typical daily activity, such as making their bed, putting a puzzle together or watching a movie. Just be sure to choose an activity with a concrete ending.
- Model good behavior. Kids are more likely to comply if their parents are wearing masks, too.
- Use a mirror. Put a mask on with your child and stand in front of the mirror to talk about them and make silly faces. Show how you can still talk and smile even though you are wearing a mask.
Especially for younger children, Dr. Zehe also suggests:
- Putting a cloth face mask on your child’s favorite stuffed animal.
- Choosing a mask with your child’s favorite characters or colors to make wearing the mask more fun.
- Showing your child pictures of other children or superheroes wearing masks.
- Playing games with the masks, such as peek-a-boo or pretend doctor.
While practicing at home, talk about some of the sensory differences you and your child feel when wearing a mask. Does it make your voice sound different? Does it feel strange on your nose or itch behind your ears?
“Validate what your child is feeling and empathize with her,” said Dr. Zehe. “You could say, ‘Yes, this is hard for me, too, but it’s something we have to do to keep ourselves and each other safe.’”
What if my child is struggling to wear a mask for extended periods of time?
If your child is having a hard time wearing a face covering for extended periods of time, prioritize mask wearing during times when 6 feet apart (or 2 arm lengths) cannot be maintained. Allow your child to take quick breaks when she’s social distancing.
Also, talk to your child’s teacher and find out if there will be times when kids can take their masks off at school. Possibly outside at recess, during lunch or maybe the teacher has incorporated built-in mask breaks throughout the day. It gives your child something to look forward to and an achievable goal.
What’s the proper way to wear a mask and which ones are best?
First, your child should wash and sanitize her hands before putting on her mask and then again after taking it off. Masks should fit snuggly and comfortably, covering her nose and mouth, and should be secured with a tie around her ears. Make sure your child can breathe comfortably with the mask on and without restriction.
It’s best if the mask has multiple fabric layers, and you should be able to wash it without damaging it. Disposable, surgical masks can’t be laundered, but cloth face masks can and should be cared for.
“The best face mask is the one that fits well. It shouldn’t be drooping off your child’s nose or sagging on the sides,” said Dr. Zehe. “Both surgical and cloth face masks have been shown to be effective, but it’s most important to have one that fits your child well.”
Can wearing masks for extended periods of time be harmful to our health?
There is no research to suggest wearing a face covering for extended periods of time is harmful to our health.
Healthcare workers have routinely worn medical and surgical masks throughout the day as part of their personal protective equipment ensembles and there hasn’t been any evidence to suggest unsafe oxygen levels or carbon dioxide toxicity.
In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration states, “Masks are designed to be breathed through and can protect against respiratory droplets, which are typically much larger than tiny carbon dioxide particles.”
Do we know masks are effective in protecting kids?
While scientists are still learning about COVID-19, there are a number of studies that have proven the effectiveness of wearing face masks to protect us.
A mask acts as a respiratory blocker (from spit or spray) when a person is coughing, sneezing or simply talking. When a mask is worn correctly over the nose and mouth, they can greatly reduce the risk of transmitting and contracting COVID-19.
Masks are especially helpful because kids can carry the virus and not show any symptoms (asymptomatic).
“Mask wearing is new for all of us and it can be a pain,” said Dr. Zehe. “We need to acknowledge these feelings from our kids, while also assuring them the best way to stay safe and be kind to others around us is to wear our masks, keep our distance and wash our hands frequently.”