Education

Do Elementary Schools Really Need Masks?

Students draw in class at Wilder Elementary School in Louisville, Ky., August 11, 2021. (Amira Karaoud/Reuters)
There’s a real danger in masking children, and everyone around them, during their formative years.

In my home state of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an order preventing independent school districts from mandating that kids wear masks throughout the school day. But a state judge stayed that order, and now major school districts across the state are implementing mask rules for children and staff members. Rather than attempting to create a sanitized learning space, though, schools should be focusing on student well-being. A holistic approach to student outcomes is needed now more than ever.

Students did not fare well academically during the pandemic. Nearly every single metric shows that school closings and hybrid learning were not productive for children. The New York Times reported last month that:

Elementary school students in the United States ended the 2020-21 school year four to five months behind where they normally would have been in academic achievement, according to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. that was released Tuesday. It found that many of the most vulnerable students experienced the steepest setbacks.

Even college students fared poorly during the pandemic. A survey of undergraduates found that they considered their virtual college experience quite poor. They responded:

On a five-point scale from “excellent” to “poor,” a mere 7 percent of current students rated the value of their education this year as “excellent,” while nearly three times as many (19 percent) were on the opposite end of the scale rating it “poor.” Nearly half all students (47 percent) rated their educational value as “fair” or “poor.” No way to sugarcoat it — this is an abysmal rating.

Having attended virtual classes myself, I can personally attest to the fact that learning online is far more difficult than participating in person. But while the academic problems with virtual learning have received a fair amount of national attention, the effects that it — and mask mandates — can have on the social development of children remain relatively underexamined.

The vast majority of human interaction is nonverbal. Anywhere from 70 to 93 percent of communication is unspoken. This is why if someone doesn’t know the context of a conversation, it’s very difficult for them to understand what is really being communicated. Human interactions become more subtle as we age, and without proper socialization, interpersonal communication becomes more difficult. Good communication is absolutely crucial for healthy relationships; poor communication is the primary driver of divorce. So, there’s a real danger in masking children, and everyone around them, during their formative years, because it deprives them of the primary means of nonverbal communication — the face.

Human beings of all ages are social creatures; we’re constantly looking for non-verbal cues and seeking the affirmation of others. This is especially true of elementary-school kids, who are just beginning to learn how to interact with their peers. If everyone wears masks, these interactions are more difficult for children to navigate, and a child’s social development could be stunted.

My point is not that we should ignore public-health data or academic performance; it goes without saying that we should absolutely pay attention to rising COVID-19 numbers, and to the ways kids are falling behind in their studies. We just can’t forget that schooling matters for non-academic reasons, too — and that mask mandates could carry real long-term costs of their own.

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