Opponents of mask mandates for preschool and elementary-school children have expressed concern that wearing masks will impair children’s ability to learn language and socialize — or worse, that (in the words of one anxious parent in Utah) it will “rewire their brains.” Even parents who support mask mandates often worry about how a school year without smiles and frowns might negatively affect their children.
These concerns are understandable but unwarranted. Although scientists don’t have much data yet on how wearing masks during a pandemic affects children’s development, there is plenty of reason to believe that it won’t cause any harm. Children in cultures where caregivers and educators wear head coverings that obscure their mouths and noses develop skills just as children in other cultures do. Even congenitally blind children — who cannot see faces at all — still learn to speak, read and get along with other people.
Indeed, there is good reason to believe that wearing a mask at school could actually improve certain social and cognitive skills, helping to strengthen abilities like self-control and attention. This is not to say that masks are preferable to no masks, all things being equal. Masks are inconvenient, uncomfortable and bothersome. But as long as they are needed, we should take advantage of the fact that they offer distinctive opportunities for learning and growth.