How do COVID-19 masks affect children in the classroom?

At the beginning of Term 1 last year, most states and territories recommended or mandated masks in secondary schools to limit the spread of COVID-19. Victoria mandated masks for primary school students in Grades 3 – 6. 

An ‘Evidence Review’ by Victoria’s health department in August, released to Cosmos under Freedom of Information laws, found the removal of mandatory masks in secondary schools in February 2022 increased the risk of COVID-19 in those students by 23%. 

But the health department documents don’t include any systematic assessment of masks in the classroom, such as the effects on communication and learning.

Dr David Roy, a lecturer in education at the University of Newcastle, says there is very limited research on the effect of masks in the classroom, particularly on the psychological impacts.

His research has looked at the use of masks in an educational context from drama and performance, to masks used as a COVID-19 prevention measure.

Roy is based in NSW where the mask mandate for secondary students was imposed in late 2021 and lifted at the end of February 2022. As a result of this short timeframe, he says “it’s been really hard to get data and into classrooms to talk to kids about it”. 

He is currently working on a project to ask children what they thought about wearing masks, and he says more research is needed into the psychological and physical effects of COVID-19 masks in the classroom. 

“I think we need to be asking, what are the behavioural changes that we’re seeing in individuals and the psychological changes, both beneficial or negative? Not just for children, but for parents, and for the teachers, and actually be interviewing them.”

Roy’s previous research shows there are pros and cons when it comes to children wearing masks in the classroom.

Downsides include that it is harder for some children to communicate and understand teachers. This is particularly an issue for children who are deaf or have hearing impairments, as they are unable to rely on lip reading. 

Some children can feel a bit smothered, their glasses fog up, or they find the mask itchy, he says.

But for others, a mask can offer a sense of anonymity, and make some children to feel more included.

Read more: COVID-19 schools data reveal: Unreleased Victorian data and analysis on masks, RATs and cases

In general, children do adapt to mask wearing, especially when it’s a broader community norm. But he says its incumbent on adults to impose such requirements equitably.

“I would never, as a former teacher, and also as a lecturer at university, ask my students to do something I wouldn’t do myself.”

In Victoria, masks continued to be mandated for Grades 3 – 6 even when the requirement was dropped for secondary school children, and most adults.

A survey of 7,889 parents and guardians conducted from 19–24 July 2022 – after the mandate was lifted – and released under FoI, reveals that 74% of parents did not ask their child to wear a mask at school. 

More than half cited reasons including: masks interfered with learning (65%), were uncomfortable (61%), my child doesn’t want to wear one (55%), and masks don’t help in stopping the spread of COVID (52%).

For the 26% of parents who asked their child to wear a mask at school, the most common reasons were: ‘to prevent them from contracting COVID-19’ (78%), ‘wearing a mask is a small inconvenience for a large benefit’ (71%), and ‘everyone in schools should be wearing masks to stop the spread of COVID’ (63%).

An Evidence Summary by the UK Department of Education found students surveyed had a “somewhat positive attitude” to wearing masks as a COVID-19 prevention measures. In the same survey, 80% reported masks made it difficult to communicate and 55% said it made learning more difficult. A separate survey of teachers found 94% said face coverings made communication in the classroom more difficult.

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