Is it Time to Reevaluate School Mask Mandates?

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  • As we learn about the mental and physical impact COVID-19 has had on children, parents differ in their opinions about lifting restrictions.
  • The need for in-person learning and desire to eliminate mask mandates in schools brings contention across the U.S.
  • Children continue to show lower risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19 compared to adults.

Amelia is a 16-year-old junior at a high school in suburban Chicago. She only had one “normal” semester during her high school years, in which she learned in school without a mask or physical distancing.

The lack of normalcy has been most difficult for her to deal with, especially when her school went remote for much of her first 2 years of high school as a result of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s orders and efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Not having to get up and get ready for school made it really hard to actually focus during school,” Amelia told Healthline. “Sitting at home, not having to pay attention to what we were learning has affected me this year [now that we’re back in school], and made it hard to readjust to normal studying and doing my work.”

She likes in-school learning better than remote but says that having to wear masks in school makes it hard for her to stay in touch and communicate with teachers and peers, “when we can’t see each other’s face expressions.”

During sports, she says that the communication between coaches and teammates — as well as simple breathing — is a challenge.

“We are missing our experiences as teenagers and young adults: concerts, dances at school, sporting events, going to restaurants, seeing our family,” Amelia said.

Her experience is that of many children and teens across the nation, which has gotten experts and parents concerned about the mental health of America’s youth.

Kids’ mental health declared national emergency

In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health, naming stress brought on by COVID-19 and racial injustice as the causes.

Dr. Willough Jenkins, inpatient medical director of psychiatry at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and child psychologist, said that before the pandemic, the rates of children’s mental health issues were on the rise, and the pandemic amplified and worsened an already existing problem.

“Children’s mental health needs to be prioritized at all levels, but particularly on a national level with more funding and legislation to support mental health initiatives,” she told Healthline.

During the pandemic, she said mental health professionals have seen rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation increase.

“More children are accessing tertiary and emergency care for mental health. We have had record numbers of children seeking mental health care at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego,” said Jenkins.

Kids are at low risk for COVID-19. Shouldn’t their mental well-being be priority?

Data collected by states that report COVID-19 cases in children shows:

  • 0.00–0.02 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death
  • 0.1–1.5 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in hospitalization

Parker L. Huston, PhD, pediatric psychologist and owner of Central Ohio Pediatric Behavioral Health, said that there are two ways to look at this data.

“By percentage, children continue to show lower risk of severe symptoms. It is logical to think that they can relax some of the restrictions with the intention of helping their mental well-being,” Huston told Healthline.

“However, from a population level view, even 1 percent suffering severe complications is a huge number of children, and the healthcare system is not equipped for a significant increase in patient need for intensive services.”

There’s also the concern that children spread viruses more than adults do. “Anything that children catch tends to spread in the home to siblings and parents,” he said.

Still, the debate on how the country should prioritize normalcy for children as it balances the safety of the general public and the operation of hospitals is a heated one with much to consider. In-person learning and unmasking kids are hot topics among parents.

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