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As masks become optional, kids take their health into their own hands

<i>Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images</i><br/>Student wear masks as they leave a Chicago elementary school on January 3.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images
Student wear masks as they leave a Chicago elementary school on January 3.

By Kristen Rogers, CNN

As many schools in the United States are lifting mask mandates, some kids are taking their health into their own hands.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new measure for determining community Covid-19 levels and severity means that nearly 70% of the United States population lives in areas where masks are no longer required.

Heeding this guidance, some schools have made mask-wearing optional for students and staff — but some children and their parents aren’t ready to let masks go just yet.

When the Towson, Maryland, school that Aubrey Marshall’s daughter attends decided to make masks optional starting March 1, 9-year-old Baileigh was relieved and uncertain at the same time.

“She wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do because I left the decision up to her,” Marshall said. Their entire family is fully vaccinated and boosted, and Baileigh is vaccinated.

“She did take her mask the first day,” Marshall added, “and I felt it was more of, like, peer pressure to see ‘Who’s wearing it? Should I wear it?'” Baileigh is still a little apprehensive about getting Covid-19, Marshall said, so she takes her mask to school and wears it sometimes.

Whether children should still wear masks depends on their community’s current coronavirus transmission level, which you can check with the CDC tool, said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Kids are basing their masking decisions on several factors, including their understanding of the pandemic, their family’s health and what their friends are doing.

An outcome of pandemic parenting

What these parents and caregivers have taught their children about Covid-19 science and masks throughout the pandemic seems to be influencing their children’s decisions. Many parents have taught their kids to practice physical distancing, wash their hands, use hand sanitizer after being in public and discuss symptoms any time they have them.

“I’ve taught her that, really, the mask acts as a shield that protects us,” Marshall said. “I try to keep it as simple as possible that a mask slows the germs from jumping on other people.”

Some kids willingly share the responsibility of protecting loved ones who are immunocompromised. Fran, based in Portland, Oregon, is the mother of Jaclene, 15, and Jesse, 13. Fran didn’t wish to disclose her last name to protect her family’s privacy.

“I have an autoimmune disease that has been increasingly debilitating, so they see my health struggles firsthand,” Fran said via email. “I do not demand that they wear masks, but I have always explained the benefits of wearing one. When my son gets harassed by other students, he tells them he is wearing it to keep me safe. My daughter is doing the same.

“My son and I have lots of disagreements, but mask wearing is not one of them,” Fran added. “He plans to continue wearing his mask at school when the mask mandate is dropped on March 12. … I am proud that both of them are making smart choices for themselves and ultimately for our family.”

Nicole Lewis’ family has a history of medical problems, so she has asked her 7-year-old daughter, Lily, to still wear a mask although Lily’s school doesn’t require them in Lamar County, Mississippi.

The state has experienced multiple Covid-19 outbreaks, Lewis said, so she told Lily she’s unsure what will happen if mask-wearing stops. “I also want to keep other people safe in case my daughter does get sick, because she hasn’t been vaccinated,” Lewis said. “She didn’t like (still having to wear a mask), but she continues to do it. She’s experiencing some health anxiety, so every time I cough, she’s concerned.

“I talk to her daily on the way to school to make sure she has her mask,” Lewis said. “But then she rides the bus home and when she comes home, she has the mask on. So, she’s saying that she’s wearing it, so I’m hopeful that she’s being truthful.”

Kanton Mathis’ 12-year-old son Eric wants to wear his mask at his Decatur, Georgia, school, where masks are now optional, Mathis said.

“He had a Covid scare a few months ago and I had Covid so he’s very cautious, no pushback at all,” Mathis said via email. “Eric thinks everyone should wear the mask because he doesn’t want to ever have to get another Covid test. But he doesn’t judge those who don’t.”

Handling ever-changing environments

“Most kids that I’m working with have been excited to not have to wear masks anymore, but some have been a little more hesitant about it,” said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief medical officer at teen mental health platform BeMe.

“For some younger kiddos, wearing masks has been fun, comforting, and part of their normal routine. For some older teens, the idea of not wearing masks when in groups of people comes with anxiety over getting sick or getting others sick.”

No matter how your child feels about masks, it’s important to acknowledge that changing mask policies are a transition and that transitions can be tough, Chaudhary said.

When talking about mask-wearing together as a family, “parents should ask their kids what their perspective is and factor that into the discussion,” she added.

For some kids, “leaving the decision entirely up to kids can be burdensome for the child who is receiving conflicting information from peers, the news or other adults,” she added. “Including kids in the decision-making conversation helps get their buy-in so that they’re more likely to abide by the rules you come up with as a family.”

If mask-wearing is right for your family but frustrates your child, acknowledge their feelings, and explain the rationale behind masking, Chaudhary said. If you’re not requiring mask-wearing but your kid still wants to wear one, prepare them for questions people might ask about why they’re wearing one.

Those responses could include “I feel more comfortable wearing one,” “it’s my choice,” or “my family is wearing masks for personal reasons,” Chaudhary said.

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