Are masks in schools harming our children? Alabama psychologists weigh in

Coronavirus

Boys and girls sitting at desks, raising hands (Getty Images).

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — With the growing number of schools across Alabama now requiring masks in the classroom, some parents have had concerns with the negative effects extended mask wearing could bring for their children, especially for their mental well-being.

While the first strain of COVID-19 last year did not affect children as much as adults, there have been some who fear what the more-contagious Delta variant can do to them. In the weeks before the start of the school year, systems like Birmingham City Schools and Homewood City Schools put in mask requirements, requiring all students and staff to wear masks while indoors, based on recommendations from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Some parents have spoken out at school board meetings about mask orders, asking them to not put them in place. Others tried to take it to court. Recently, parents Dustin Vann and Shelly Whitlock Smith requested an injunction against the Homewood school system from putting a mask order into place. Among their claims, the complaint alleged that having the policy would cause them to be “irreparably harmed.”

“Justin Vann will be irreparably harmed by the policy as his children are being unjustly psychologically challenged and forced to deal with matters of political and medical tyranny while in elementary school,” the complaint stated.

A judge ultimately denied the request.

The concerns have even gone as far as the Alabama Legislature, where Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, recently filed a bill seeking to prohibit masks from being enforced in schools, adding that “masking children may lead to negative health and societal ramifications.”

Dr. Daniel Marullo, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s of Alabama, said there’s little evidence to indicate that there are any psychological effects of children wearing masks.

“I’m not really that concerned about children wearing a mask from a psychological standpoint,” Marullo said. “Children are pretty resilient.”

However, others like Dr. Jordan Vaughn, chief executive officer of Medhelp, said there is still a lot that needs to be investigated about the effects of long-term mask use before school systems put requirements in place to wear them.

“I would like more evidence before you make a decision for my child,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn recently approached the Mountain Brook Board of Education with those same concerns before the school year started and his child was starting kindergarten. Mountain Brook is one of several school systems that have required masks within the school system.

“My question is why we aren’t we asking these things,” he said regarding mental health issues seen in children during the pandemic. “Why are we not evaluating what is causing this.”

Vaughn said he is in favor of families making their own decisions on whether or not to wear masks, but that it shouldn’t be enforced without the proper evidence.

“I’m not telling their kids what to do; I’m saying let parents decide what’s best for their kid,” he said.

However, psychologists like Dr. Susan Rathmell said that the real harm to children’s mental health is missing out on school due to COVID-19.

“Eighteen months into the pandemic, we now know that COVID’s primary threat to children’s mental health is school closure,” Rathmell said. “To date, no legitimate study has established a correlation between masking and a decline in children’s mental health. Masks are not the threat; in fact, masks and vaccination are the answer if schools are to remain open.”

In fact, some have pointed to the benefits wearing masks can have on mental health. In a study published in JAMA Network Open in January, 1.3 million students from the Guangdong province of China were surveyed last year between March 8 and March 30 about psychological distress during the pandemic. While 10.5% reported psychological distress they had suffered during the pandemic, there was an interesting component regarding students who wore masks versus those who didn’t.

Ultimately, the study found that students who wore masks did not report as much psychological distress as those who didn’t wear them. They also found exercise played a role in overall mental health.

“Students who wear face masks frequently might feel less likely to contract COVID-19, which could further reduce worry and anxiety levels and promote mental well-being,” the study stated. “Therefore, wearing a mask may be more conducive to mental health.”

Marullo said that despite no evidence on mask wearing causing psychological issues, the pandemic has brought forward a number of mental health issues for many many children, climbing from 5-10% to about 20-25% in the last year.

“We’re seeing a lot more anxiety and depression,” Marullo said. “There’s the anxiety of COVID and there’s day-to-day life.”

Marullo said that ultimately, adults modeling good behavior will go a long way with children in making sure they stay mentally healthy.

“Most children are going to do fine with wearing a mask if they’re given a clear structure,” he said. “The vast majority are going to do well and those that struggle, we can help them.”

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