Children wearing masks reduce daycare closures, year-long Yale study finds

Shanikia Johnson, a teacher in a class for 3-year-olds at the Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center in Baltimore, Maryland, helped Magjor Jones clean up a puzzle. (Getty Images)

Child care centers where children wear masks are less likely than others to close due to COVID-19 outbreaks, according to what is believed to be the first large-scale, year-long study of child masking in the USA

Led by researchers at Yale University, the study – involving more than 6,600 center and home child care providers – showed that masks on children were associated with a 13 to 14% of closures, while social distancing of 6 feet reduced the chance of closure by just 7 percent.

With young children still not eligible for vaccinations – and vaccines for under-5s may still be months away – the study supports expert recommendations that children aged 2 and over wear masks, in particular Omicron still causing frequent outbreaks, the authors wrote in an American Medical Association. newspaper.

At a time when masking continues to spur protests, the findings, they said, “have important public health policy implications for families who depend on childcare to maintain employment. “. While the surge in cases due to Omicron has resulted in staff shortages at centers, masking, the researchers added, may prevent programs from closing.

The impact of COVID-19 on childcare has had serious ramifications for the country’s economy and families with young children. Thousands of mothers left the workforce when programs for their children ceased. According to an analysis, around 3% of child care centers did not reopen after the closures, and many young children lost an important source of play time and language development.

But requiring young children over age 2 to wear masks, as currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is arguably even more controversial than such mandates for children in kindergarten and beyond. Opponents argue that the masks prevent young children from recognizing facial expressions and developing their language skills, while others say these concerns are unfounded.

“We know that children as young as 2 years old can safely and consistently wear masks if adults make them a routine expectation,” said Dr. Dean Blumberg, pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of California to Davis. He said masks may soon become optional as spring and summer approach, but added it’s important to remember why masks were recommended in the first place. “It was a completely new virus that no one was immune to,” he said.

The Yale study is different from most because it asked teachers about their masking practices in the spring of 2020 and followed the same teachers a year later, said Walter Gilliam, professor of child psychiatry and psychology at Yale and co. – author of the article. .

It was also “a much larger study than most and takes into account many different types of programs in a wide variety of communities,” he said.

Using the Font Mask

The findings, however, come as the COVID-related restrictions of the past two years have begun to ease. Some states, for example, no longer recommend contact tracing.

In a Tuesday Washington Post op-ed, three doctors wrote that schools should start phasing out mask mandates. The CDC’s latest guidelines, which outline the benefits of enhanced masks, such as N95s, they wrote, offer a “compromise path” in which those at higher risk protect themselves.

“Staff time and energy spent on police mask use is far better spent teaching and supporting children,” they wrote, also citing research that summarizes the potential impacts of masks on development. young children, especially those who may have hearing loss.

The Yale paper addresses concerns that masks may inhibit children’s social and speech skills. The data is “very mixed and any negative impact on children reading social cues is very small,” Gilliam said. “It is COVID-19 that is harmful, not masks that prevent its spread.”

Blumberg of the University of California added that young children aren’t around masked adults all the time and have “plenty of opportunities to develop those language skills and watch people’s lips move.”

Even so, mask opponents are unlikely to be persuaded to drop their objections, noting that the World Health Organization generally recommends against mask use for children under 5.

“Harmful effects are magnified in young children,” said Sharon McKeeman, founder of Let Them Breathe, a California advocacy group that has sued the state over its mask requirement in schools and supports preschools and daycares. who defy the state’s indoor mask requirement. . “Child care providers are starting to stand up for their rights and Let Them Breathe is here to support them.”

A sign at the Kentucky Freedom Rally on August 28, 2021. Demonstrators protested several issues including Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s handling of the pandemic, abortion laws and the teaching of critical race theory . (Getty Images)

“Always trying to catch up”

California still has a strict indoor mask mandate that includes daycares. New York, where a judge reinstated the state’s mandate this week, is another. But in most cases, “parents are likely choosing programs that align with their mask-wearing beliefs,” because child care centers are typically private businesses and not run by public boards like schools, said Lynette Fraga, CEO of Child Care Aware, a nonprofit that advocates child care policies and supports local efforts to help families find care.

She noted that while opinions on masking in daycare are as varied as they are in kindergarten, requiring masks is relatively inexpensive compared to other mitigation strategies like upgrading ventilation systems or social distancing, which may require more staff and smaller classes.

The Yale study showed that in the early months of the pandemic, only 9% of centers and daycares in the sample required children to wear masks, likely representing “highly vigilant programs.” wrote the authors. A year later, about a third of programs had a mask policy for children.

A contributing factor in pushing back the masking of children — whether in child care centers or K-12 — is that families rarely know when the requirement will be lifted, said Benjamin Linas, an epidemiologist at the University of Boston,

With Omicron still prevalent, he agrees that schools and daycares should currently require masks as much as possible. Dr. Thomas Murray, lead author of the Yale study, noted the increased rate of childhood hospitalizations associated with Omicron. At the start of January, an average of 672 children were admitted to hospital each day – a pandemic record.

But Linas said families need to know in advance what triggers the masking rules and what conditions would allow those requirements to lapse. He co-authored an article last year that includes a tool to guide districts in making such appeals. The same process could be used in programs for young children, he said.

Public health and district officials “usually don’t specify masking policy goals,” he said, “and so policies are inherently stagnant and always trying to catch up.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for the 74 newsletter here.