Parents and education experts are pushing school district officials to fully reopen schools without mask mandates, pointing to a decline in reading test scores and speech development following a year of coronavirus restrictions.
During the first full year of primarily virtual or masked in-person education, reading test scores for young children plummeted and school-based speech pathologists saw an increase in children needing speech therapy. The number of students under the baseline level of reading achievement increased by 19 percent for kindergartners and 17 percent for first graders during the 2020-2021 school year, according to a report by curriculum developer Amplify.
These declines have led parents and experts across the country to decry the masking of children in school, saying they will not go along with mandates as coronavirus fears reemerge. States including Florida, Texas, and South Carolina have already passed bans on school mask mandates.
USC professors Neeraj Sood and Jay Bhattacharya said California's school mask mandates posed a greater risk to children than they do benefit. Children are at an extremely low risk of severe illness or death due to COVID-19, according to scientific studies.
"Masking is a psychological stressor for children and disrupts learning," they wrote in an op-ed. "Covering the lower half of the face of both teacher and pupil reduces the ability to communicate. In particular, children lose the experience of mimicking expressions, an essential tool of nonverbal communication."
While experts agree that masking could have adverse effects on children, most are quick to defer to the CDC when it comes to making recommendations.
Masks and distance learning often prevent children from being able to see their teacher's mouth, which could hurt their "phonemic awareness," the ability to learn proper word pronunciation.
"It's much harder to accomplish if kids are struggling to hear those sounds," University of Chicago professor and children's literacy specialist Timothy Shanahan told the Washington Free Beacon. "A big part of perception of language sounds, not just for kids but for all of us, is the ability to see the other person's mouth."
"Especially in not being able to see the teacher's mouth," Shanahan added. "Even with things like I'm saying, how do you have the kids work with mirrors? Even just touching their mouths when they are trying to say certain words so they can get a sense of what's going on. Of course with a mask, your attention is distracted from where it needs to be." He said he deferred, though, to the CDC's mask recommendations.
In Wisconsin, a coalition of 38 parent advocacy groups put out a letter to Gov. Tony Evers (D.) and President Joe Biden that opposed school mask mandates.
"Your renewed calls for lockdowns, enforced mask mandates, and masking in schools is not rooted in science and is objectively cruel to the most vulnerable in our society, our children. We believe that you are in fact aware of this and continue to play political games with our children," the letter reads.
Amy Richards, part of the parent group from Kettle Moraine, Wis., that signed on to the letter, said masking children does more harm than good, especially for children with ADHD.
"Now they've got something touching them all the time, and a lot of times ADHD kids have sensory challenges," Richards told the Free Beacon. "Any kid who's got any kind of hearing or verbal challenges, it was a problem for them."
Richards also had concerns for her son. "We did have speech concerns with him, so I was very worried about the masks this year," she said, adding that school mask mandates were a "line in the sand" for many Wisconsin parents. She said that many would be looking into alternatives such as homeschooling or private schools if their districts insisted on masking.
In Virginia, some school districts, such as Loudoun County, have imposed mask mandates for all K-12 public schools despite opposition from parents. Brei Bailey, a Loudoun parent, opposes the mandate because of the harmful consequences of masks for children's mental health and their ability to learn the fundamentals of word pronunciation. She has cut out the inner lining of her son's masks to make it easier for him to speak.
"It's teaching these kids to be scared of everything," Bailey said. "If there are parents who do want to keep masks on their kids, that's fine. They can go ahead and do it, but don't force it on me."