After years of changing pandemic rules, parents are facing another decision crossroads: Should their kids wear — or not wear — masks at school?
It’s a question that comes as COVID-19 rates are dropping, and new CDC guidelines say the majority of the country can go mask-free outdoors and indoors, including at schools.
Still, you may still feel stuck in a confusing limbo that involves wanting to give your children a sense of freedom, while also being cautious about COVID-19 transmission. The answer for you and your family might depend on a number of factors. So we asked several pediatric doctors for advice on how to make that “mask or not” decision.
Dr. Kyle Monk, a board-certified pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist at the Atria Institute in New York City and associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a pediatric infectious disease physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
What’s the first thing to consider when deciding whether to mask my child?
Quick note: If it feels like the ground is shifting underneath you with all of the changing pandemic rules, we hear you. “We've had to do a lot of decoding and interpreting of the guidance that keeps changing on us,” says Dr. Talib. “It always feels like a lot.” But you can make this decision, and data can help.
To start: Look at the CDC’s new color-coded system, which assesses your county’s COVID-19 risk and hospital capacities with traffic light colors. If you’re in a red county, that means you’re in a high-risk area. Aka, stop and put on your mask before you go inside. Green means go freely because there’s low risk, and yellow is medium. Read: Slow down and make some concerted decisions.
“About 30% of counties in the United States continue to have high rates of COVID transmission,” says Dr. Tan. “And in those counties, it is not a wise idea to drop the mask mandates.”
What other factors should I consider in deciding whether to mask my child?
After you find out your region’s COVID-19 level, consider whether your child will put themselves — and other people in your orbit — at risk if they don’t wear a mask, Dr. Monk says. Think: people who are unvaccinated (including children under 5 who are ineligible to get the shot) or immunocompromised (or others who have a higher chance of getting really sick if they get infected).
As your children have more IRL social and academic opportunities, Dr. Talib encourages parents to ask about the people involved, and whether they have any health conditions that make them vulnerable. Ask fellow parents about your kids’ classmates, the friends coming over for a playdate, and the guests attending and hosting a birthday party.
“Go the extra mile and just ask about what’s happening in your child’s classroom, teachers and other students included,” Dr. Talib says. But she emphasizes that masking isn’t an all-or-nothing decision. Your child’s mask might come off when you’re with a familiar pod. And then they could put it back on when you’re in an especially crowded indoor space or don’t know the vaccine status or health issues of the people around you.
“You can make a decision for certain places, and you can scale up or scale down,” Dr. Talib says.
Dr. Tan adds, “It's a personal choice, but I would always go on the side of being safe,” which includes getting your child vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible.
Will we see a surge in cold, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) rates once kids stop masking?
Short answer: probably.
Dr. Monk says she hasn’t seen many cases of the flu in the past two years — when many kids have been masked. But she says the kids who visit her with “back-to-back” cold and flu symptoms tend to be those who go to schools where masking hasn’t been mandatory. She recommends that kids keep their coverings on through the flu season (which tends to peak in February but can go as late as May) to limit the spread of the flu, RSV, and colds.
“So even if it's not the cool thing to do, I tell kids to do what makes you feel comfortable and what keeps you safe,” Dr. Monk says.
Dr. Talib adds that contrary to what you’ve likely heard: Getting sick isn’t actually “good” for your children’s immune systems. “You do not need to be exposed to viruses to have a strong immune system. So I don’t tie those two together.”
If or when masks come off, Dr. Tan recommends that parents encourage their kids to have good germ etiquette to prevent the spread of common illnesses. Reminder: Cough and sneeze into your elbow area. And after you wipe your nose, throw the tissue away and wash your hands.
How can I support my child who feels anxious about the change in mask rules?
For the past two years, we’ve drilled into children that wearing masks will protect them — and the people they love (hi, grandma) — from getting sick. So, it makes sense that some kids might not be ready just yet to remove their masks all of the time.
To address kids’ concerns, level with them. Be open about how guidelines are evolving and why. This might mean your family will have to gradually adjust your mask practices.
You can help your children get comfortable by making small changes first. For example, start with walking to school without a mask, and then putting it on before the kids go inside, Dr. Talib says.
“For some families, that’s a change — approaching school grounds for drop-off without a mask on,” she says. “And then maybe [you go mask-free] in the pod, and then maybe [start taking the mask off for] after-school activities or sports.”
And if your kids are going to put on face coverings in places where other children aren’t wearing them, Dr. Talib suggests families have a prepared response to the inevitable “why are you wearing a mask?” question. “Roleplay with them so they have their statement ready,” she says. The answers she’s heard from her patients have ranged, but here’s one option: “I feel more comfortable with it on.”
Are there any benefits to kids going mask-free at school?
Sure, it’s “beneficial to see what your friends actually look like,” says Dr. Tan. And Dr. Talib says that it’s understandable that people want to remove this “visible, tangible reminder of a pandemic and of the reality that we have been in for a long time.”
But for the record, Dr. Monk says that wearing a mask does not typically affect a kid’s oxygen intake or speech development. On the contrary, she finds that children who are able to wear masks successfully are “probably even more in tune to gesturing and [looking at] facial expressions for cues and non-verbal forms of communication,” she says.
Dr. Talib’s advice: “We really need to develop a flexible mindset when it comes to these masks, because they may come and go.” So you may decide that your child doesn’t need a mask right now. But it’s not a ‘no backsies’ situation: You still have the option to reconsider and put the covering back on later.
Masking rules and recommendations are constantly evolving nationwide. But deciding whether your kids should wear masks is a personal choice that you should make after considering your loved ones’ risk level, safety, and comfort.