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Debate rages over whether kids should wear masks at school

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Now we turn to a new front in the debate over masks in schools. Some states, like California, are currently giving out respirator-style masks to children. At the same time, in states like Virginia, the fight over whether to mask or not to mask is intensely political, pitting the new Republican governor against school districts with more liberal residents. What's different about this moment is that there's a third camp emerging of parents, doctors and advocates who are pro-vaccine and anti-mask mandates for children, and they're getting louder. NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Kerry Dingle is a mother of two. She wants to make masks optional in schools and child care, and that makes her feel pretty lonely in Silver Spring, Md.

KERRY DINGLE: As soon as you question, is it a good idea to put a 2-year-old in a mask all day, you're suddenly, you know, a psychotic, anti-vax right-winger, which really couldn't be further from the truth.

KAMENETZ: About two-thirds of large school districts, plus many child cares and preschools, currently require students as young as 2 years old to wear masks. Commonly, those masks are cloth. But cloth masks, the Centers for Disease Control says, don't work well against omicron.

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NICO CONNOR: Every day, school feels more and more unsafe. We don't have the right kind of masks to actually protect us for prolonged periods of time.

KAMENETZ: For some - like this student, Nico Connor (ph), who was on Fox 13 News in Seattle - the answer is obvious - stricter policies, more serious masks. Student activists from Boston to Round Rock, Texas, have been demanding respirators, N95s, K95s, KF94s in the name of safety. Yet at this same moment, there are others questioning whether masks are necessary for children at all.

JEANNE NOBLE: Kids don't need to be masked - full stop.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Jeanne Noble directs COVID response for the University of California San Francisco Emergency Department. She's part of a group of physicians and scientists who say our pandemic response should focus on universal vaccination and boosters for the most vulnerable. They have just announced a national campaign to restore normalcy in children's lives by putting them first in line for lifting mask mandates and other restrictions once the omicron surge passes.

NOBLE: There is no benefit to kids. We are not saving children's lives by doing this. We're not saving their teachers' lives.

KAMENETZ: These skeptics say prolonged masking poses challenges and even risks for child development. Kerry Dingle's 3-year-old in Silver Spring attends a preschool that mandates masking, although the children are almost always outdoors.

DINGLE: He keeps the cloth masks on, but he sucks on them, and he chews holes through them.

KAMENETZ: Her son also has a speech delay.

DINGLE: He's not really making any back-of-the-throat sounds at all. So, like, cookie is tootie (ph).

KAMENETZ: The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, or ASHA, says referrals of children to speech therapy have increased since the pandemic began. But they don't have any data to prove or disprove that this has anything to do with masking.

DONNA SMILEY: We all use visual input to help understand the message.

KAMENETZ: Donna Smiley is an audiologist with ASHA. She says teachers and other practitioners are working hard to overcome the challenges of masking.

SMILEY: And so I think that was the biggest concern I heard. And then the second concern, which was also valid, is that by putting on a mask, you also were making the teacher's voice less loud.

BRITTANY GONZALEZ: It's a foreign piece of cloth on their face, and not all of them have a level of understanding as to why we're doing it and what it means and how to wear it.

KAMENETZ: That's Brittany Gonzalez. She teaches special education to second and third graders in Lee County, Fla. She says for some of her kids on the autism spectrum...

GONZALEZ: They have almost started adapting the masks as their face. It's part of their identity. It's their security blanket.

KAMENETZ: Stephanie Avanessian lives in Los Angeles and has three daughters in general education. She worries about their social development.

STEPHANIE AVANESSIAN: They can't see their friends smile. They can't see their friends frown. They're not developing empathy. It's taken six months for my fifth grader to make friends.

KAMENETZ: She said once her older kids were vaccinated, she thought at least they'd be able to take the mask off at recess, but no.

AVANESSIAN: They make them wear a mask nine hours a day straight - OK? - outside. In Southern California, it's 100 degrees when school starts.

KAMENETZ: The debate is polarized right now, but that may be shifting. Besides some parents and some doctors, the American Federation of Teachers also supports clear, evidence-based guidelines and metrics leading to a school masking offramp, assuming COVID cases drop to pre-omicron levels. So far, the CDC has not weighed in. Parents like Dingle are getting impatient.

DINGLE: We should stop burdening little kids with protecting other people.

KAMENETZ: She says for her, as a mom, it's a question of fairness. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.