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Angry clashes broke out across the Commonwealth this month as local school boards weighed whether to follow the latest state guidance and eliminate school mask mandates.
The highly politicized issue sparked impassioned speeches and Facebook outbursts from parents and public officials, as the students who will be affected by the change grappled with it quietly, rarely seen or heard from. And while many will leap eagerly into mask-free schools when they return this week from February break, others face a trickier transition, experts said, after two years steeped in warnings about the necessity of masks for health and safety.
“If you’ve been told for two years that not wearing a mask could hurt someone you love, and now you’re being told that it’s OK, that’s a big thing to wrap your head around,” said Dr. Ryan Madigan, a pediatric clinical psychologist and founder of the Boston Child Study Center, with offices in Boston, Natick and Worcester. “It’s important to take time to talk through children’s worries with them, to really listen, and to view it through their developmental lens.”
Although proponents of mask-free schools often cite a recent crisis in children’s mental health as a reason to end mandates and return to normalcy, the removal of masks brings its own complicated reckoning for some children, as well as the need for patient navigation by adults, at a time when many are feeling out of patience, said some experts.
In more than 50 Massachusetts school districts, including Barnstable, Brockton, Fall River, Gloucester, Lowell and Lynn, students and teachers will have the option to remove their masks as soon as Monday, following votes by local school committees. Other districts delayed the change by a week or two, until March 7 or 14, to ease the potential impact of students’ travel and socializing during school vacation.
At least a half dozen school districts, including Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Springfield, and Somerville, have announced plans to keep mask mandates in place for now. Worcester’s School Committee voted to defer to the city’s Board of Health, which is expected to discuss the policy at a meeting on March 7.
Cases of the COVID-19 virus among the state’s students and school staff have been in decline for several weeks, following a surge in January. On Feb. 16, just before school break, the state reported 3,251 student cases and 670 among staff. More than 100,000 cases among students have been reported since the start of the pandemic.
The dialogue around school masks in Worcester, as in most places, has been divisive. During a recent School Committee meeting to discuss the future of the mandate, viewers posted more than 700 public comments in two hours, many of them pulsing with emotion and vitriol:
“Keep the masks!” … “End the masks!”
“Are we going to keep them masked forever?”
“Let the kids breathe.” … “Let the parents decide.”
Experts in child psychology and development said a stressful change feels even more alarming to children when it is accompanied by disagreement among adults.
“To have your third grade teacher and your parents contradicting each other is extremely confusing,” Madigan said.
Family members and caregivers can help by listening calmly to children, patiently allowing them to talk through their worries, and taking cues from their questions, while keeping their own grown-up emotions in check, experts said. Instead of trying to protect kids from their feelings, adults should normalize and validate them.
Some children will make a quick and seamless transition, while others may prefer a slower, phased approach, first removing their mask in one part of school that feels safe, and then in more areas or segments of the day when ready, said clinicians.
“Gradual change can be helpful if they’re anxious,” said Dr. Yael Dvir, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. For example, “some kids, after they have a cast removed, will walk around for hours holding the cast to their arm, because it provided a sense of safety and security.”
Where appropriate, adults also can provide data and information, context for changes that feel frightening or confusing. That might mean explaining that most fully vaccinated people experience a milder form of illness, and rarely need hospitalization, experts said, or reminding children that people with different attitudes toward masks may have different home or family situations.
“We can teach kids empathy by helping them think about where others might be coming from,” said Dvir, “and reminding them we don’t know everything that someone else is going through.”
The elimination of masks may be especially alarming to some elementary-age children, who are just beginning to develop awareness of human mortality and unpredictable threats such as natural disasters.
For high school students, whose developmental stage demands that they separate from parents and strengthen social bonds, eliminating masks may be easier. But adolescents who already have developed a keen sense of empathy may struggle to resolve what feels like tension between their own needs and desires and the vulnerabilities of others.
In Worcester, high school senior Stacia Zoghbi acknowledged that dropping masks would bring “a normalcy we’ve been yearning for.” But the 17-year-old, who serves as student representative on her city’s School Committee, can’t get past her peers’ low vaccination rate: Just 19 percent of Worcester students have received two vaccine shots.
Pointing out that she is the only committee member who has experienced public school in a pandemic, Zoghbi urged the board last week to postpone its decision on masks, as Boston has done.
“Not wearing a mask in a school building doesn’t feel normal,” she said in an interview, “and it doesn’t seem smart or safe right now.”
Worcester third grader Ella Berg Powers summarized her point of view succinctly just before the start of school vacation, after wrapping up a magical last-day-of-school-before-break that featured special games, special snacks (Oreos and Cheetos), and a movie screening in the auditorium (”Encanto”).
“I understand that they might be a little itchy, or hard to wear,” said the 8-year-old, who e-mailed the School Committee to voice her opinion. “But it’s not really that hard, and it feels good to be protected from a virus.”
Her mother, Cara Berg Powers, the interim executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, said she worries that decisions to end mask mandates too soon might end up putting more pressure on students.
“We’ve asked children to wear masks to protect other people,” she said. “When people in power take the virus less seriously, it puts more responsibility on children.”
Parents, students, and experts agree that schools need to stay alert for teasing and bullying of children who choose to keep wearing masks after mandates end, and should enforce clear, consistent consequences.
“In some ways, moving into these restrictions was easier than moving out of them, because it was very clear,” said Dvir. “What people really struggle with is uncertainty, and there is a lot of uncertainty now.”