LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Connor Flick returns to school next week at Gatton Academy in Bowling Green, he, like most students across the state of Kentucky, will be required to wear a mask in all indoor settings. Flick, and most of the students he knows, are fine with that.
“We understand that if we need to keep ourselves safe by wearing a mask, and it allows us to still go to school in person, we will do that,” Flick told Spectrum News 1 a day after Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order mandating masks in Kentucky schools.
Beshear’s order was met with righteous opposition from many Kentucky Republicans, at least one of whom has said he will seek the governor's impeachment over the matter.
One of the Republicans who spoke out was State Sen. Whitney Westerfield. He responded to Besehar’s order with a question: “Did anyone even speak at all to the psychological and educational harm to students wearing masks all day?,” he tweeted Tuesday.
Westerfield later told Spectrum News 1 that his tweet echoed concerns he's heard from parents and teachers who say mask wearing is bad for students. Among the concerns he's heard are that, “It diminishes their learning. It diminishes their social interaction and their growth in that regard. It changes the way kids learn.”
He added: “I’ve had educators talk about symptoms of depression that present themselves in children that are stuck wearing masks all day long."
But Dr. Judith Danovitch said there is no evidence masks cause psychological harm to students. She concedes that it’s too early to know the long-term effects of masking in children — COVID-19 has simply not been around long enough — but researches can make predictions based on what they do know.
“The reality is that everything we know about child development suggests that there should not be long-term effects, or even short-term effects for that matter, of mask wearing,” said Danovitch, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville. “It might take a little adjustment for kids, but they're going to adjust very quickly.”
There is also no evidence masks impair development in most children, said Danovitch, who acknowledged that some children with learning differences may be exceptions. Research has shown that children rely more on looking at the eyes than the mouth when reading emotions. And concerns that masking will delay speech development should be allayed by cultures where caregivers often have their mouths covered.
“If having to see a person's mouth was necessary for language or social development, then you would expect to find big delays in the children in those cultures and you don't,” she said.
Visually-impaired children, Danovitch added, “may never see other people's mouths, nor their eyes, nor a lot of their gesture, and yet they develop language, they learn how to read, they have friends, and they have great social skills.”
In the absence of direct research on masking during the pandemic, Danovitch said, these examples “suggest that even much more significant time spent not seeing people's mouths doesn't have long-term detrimental effects.”
She added that kids are “fundamentally very resilient” and “good at adjusting to new situations.”
Flick also resisted the idea that masks cause psychological damage to children. “If there's psychological harm being done to students because of the pandemic, it's not coming from the masks. It is coming from the fact that students, oftentimes, are not getting the mental health supports that they need. They're going through a very traumatic event, their lives have been rearranged and they don't know how to plan for the future,” he said.
For Flick and his classmates, the priority is on being in the classroom. “A lot of students were struggling when it came to virtual education,” he said. Social connections with peers and teachers suffered and students found it hard to get motivated and stay engaged.
Gov. Beshear emphasized the importance of in-person school in his announcement of the mask mandate Tuesday, saying, “This is how we make sure we protect our children, but this is also how we make sure that they stay in school.”
Research over the course of the pandemic has shown the drawbacks of remote learning, which can result in worse mental health and exacerbate inequities, particularly for students from lower-income households, and those in special education programs. In Jefferson County Public Schools and Fayette County Public Schools, grades dropped well below normal during nontraditional instruction.
For Danovitch, the choice is clear. “The value of being in school outweighs any potential minor adverse effects of masking,” she said.