With government officials announcing plans to end mask mandates this spring, kids will need to re-acclimate to living with their faces uncovered.
Vaccinations are available to anyone aged 5 and up, infection rates are falling, and the omicron surge is ebbing. We appear to be moving steadily towards a mask-free future. Are we ready for it?
As always with the question of masks, the only certainty is that there will be disagreement.
On Monday, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that his state will end its school mask mandate on March 7.
“Balancing public health with getting back to some semblance of normalcy is not easy. But we can responsibly take this step due to declining COVID numbers and growth in vaccinations,” the Governor said on Twitter.
This means that children in New Jersey, as well as Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, among others, where officials have announced similar plans, could soon be setting off for school with the bottom halves of their faces uncovered. Govenor Kathy Hochul is about to drop New York’s indoor mask/vaccine mandate, although the fate of mask rules for New York schools, which will expire on February 21, is still uncertain.
Not everyone is on board with the plan. Some say that it’s too early to step away from masks, given the low rate of vaccination among children. Only 22.9% of children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated, according to data from the CDC, although the vaccine was approved for this age group at the end of October 2021. Masking is also part of the calculus of figuring out who has been exposed to Covid-19 and needs to isolate when infections occur, and some worry that ending the mask mandate could result in more kids missing more days of school.
Young children probably don’t even remember what this feels like. Kids who were in kindergarten in March 2020 have never known a school year without pandemic disruption, and are now second graders. For them, masking is normal, and stepping into a classroom with the air on their lips and noses is a weird idea. They’ve adjusted remarkably well to a culture of mask-wearing, proving once again that kids are more resilient and flexible than many adults, and there’s even evidence that kids’ ability to read emotions is unaffected by masks. The backdrop of their childhood thus far has been pandemic anxiety, and wearing a mask is a way to feel safe.
As anyone who’s had to endure a few hours sans underwear can attest, going without a garment that you’ve become accustomed to can feel extremely strange and uncomfortable.
So some kids may not be so eager to pull off their masks. Scary Mommy spoke with two psychologists to get their tips for easing the transition.
What To Say To Your Kids To Prepare Them For The Change
“Before talking to kids, make sure you’ve come to terms with how you feel,” said Dr. Aliza Pressman, the co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and host of the Raising Good Humans podcast. “For example, if you’re anxious, sort through that so you don’t impose those feelings on your child. If you’re excited, try not to minimize your child’s feelings or force them to feel the excitement. Basically, come to terms with how you feel so you have space to be curious about how your child feels.”
Dr. Rebecca Hershberg, co-founder of Little House Calls, added that it’s important to be clear and concise when telling your kids the news. “Kids feel safe when their world feels predictable — or as predictable as possible. Explain that there are experts — scientists, doctors, public health officials — who now believe that it’s no longer as risky not to wear a mask, particularly given that so many people have gotten vaccinated. Name for them that yes, this is a change in policy, and that sometimes laws change when we have more, or new, information.”
It will be a huge change for elementary-aged kids. And it is confusing and nerve-wracking — even to adults — to sort through what’s what with this pandemic. It’s important to validate that, said Hershberg.And not every family will choose to stop wearing masks, which is OK — if not confusing — too. “Let them know that just because the mandates are lifting doesn’t mean that every family will choose not to wear a mask; the change in the law just means that now families get to decide what’s best for themselves. There is no answer that is right for everyone,” Hershberg said.Not every kid will be OK with dropping the mask, for safety reasons or otherwise, reminded Dr. Pressman. “For some kids, hiding behind a mask may feel safe. Give them some tools to sit with feeling more exposed,” she said.It continues to be a weird time to be a person in 2022, so it’s important to remind kids the fun benefits of not wearing masks to help ease the transition. “Remind them of the fun things they can do when some people are not wearing masks — like see what their friends and teachers look like when they’re laughing!” said Hershberg.As with everything in this pandemic, patience — and grace — is key.