Coronavirus: Should children returning to school wear face coverings?


Guidelines vary on the age at which children should wear face masks

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Days before schools reopened, the UK government reversed its advice that face coverings need not be worn by pupils in England. Now it recommends that secondary school children wear them in corridors and busy communal areas. Official advice on this has evolved during the pandemic.

Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises that young people over the age of 12 wear face coverings as adults do, ideally wherever it is difficult to maintain a distance of at least 1 metre from others in places where coronavirus transmission is ongoing. This doesn’t apply to people with certain disabilities, or those who find wearing a face covering anxiety-provoking.

For children aged between 6 and 11, the advice is more flexible. Whether a child wears a mask should depend on their ability to use one, according to the WHO, which also advises that children under the age of 5 shouldn’t have to wear them.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends the use of face coverings by children age 2 and older. Public Health England, meanwhile, doesn’t recommend face coverings for children under the age of 3 “for health and safety reasons”, but it is unclear what those are. There is unlikely to be any risk to the breathing abilities of a young child who wears a face covering, say experts contacted by New Scientist.

The greater risk is likely to be that young children use masks incorrectly. “They might be taking them off, manipulating them, and putting them back on their face,” says Dimitri Christakis at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “It might actually be worse than wearing a mask.”

There are also concerns that face coverings will affect the way young children learn about language, emotions and social interactions. “When they’re learning sounds and words, and when their vocabulary is increasing, children and babies tend to focus [their attention] on the mouth,” says Lisa Scott at the University of Florida.

The WHO urges that decision-makers consider the potential impacts of mask-wearing on learning and social development even in children aged between 6 and 11. Scott recommends that carers and teachers of young children wear see-through masks where possible to minimise such effects.

“I think we can help children cope and adapt, and learn to read emotions and social cues in other ways,” says Julie Donohue at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

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