Guest columnist Suzanne Stillinger: In the rush to shed masks in schools, disabled children, others are left behind

  • Rules requiring teachers to wear face masks in schools helped slow transmission of the coronavirus. Dreamstime

Published: 3/3/2022 1:09:50 PM
Modified: 3/3/2022 1:09:25 PM

Our small preschool has three guiding principles: take care of yourself; take care of each other; and take care of our spaces.

All the daily conversations about washing hands, taking turns, and cleaning up fit neatly into these three bigger concepts, and they foster meaningful dialogue between young children working through conflicts as a classroom community.

When Massachusetts preschools and child care centers were cleared by the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) to reopen in early summer of 2020 after the widespread shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic, our school scrambled to adjust our spaces and routines to follow new safety guidelines in order to minimize risk. We rolled up the purple rug in the block area, created a symptom checklist for each family to fill out, and sent out advice for families whose children would be wearing masks for the first time. These precautions were simply a new way to take care of ourselves and of one another.

Families were very grateful to return their children to in-person care after the isolation of the shutdown, but some expressed doubt about our masking policy. While some families wondered if we were expecting too much, 5-year-old Samantha’s family worried, “Will this be enough?” For her family, the decision about whether their child could return to in-person learning was agonizing, and involved advice from multiple doctors and specialists, because disabilities in her family make them particularly vulnerable to negative short- and long-term effects of COVID-19.

Samantha and her family are not alone. I also have multiple underlying conditions that place me at higher risk for severe COVID-19, and I was very hesitant to return to a classroom of students who do not know when a sneeze is coming until it is well underway.

We were making these decisions nearly a year before any of us had access to vaccines, when people were still wiping down their groceries and unsure about the specifics of how the virus was spreading. There were many unknowns, but Samantha and I did return, and as we eased back into the routines of our preschool days, she and the other children adjusted to mask-wearing within a single week, even integrating them into superhero stories as they rescued plastic dinosaurs from peril in the sandbox.

As we enter the third year of this global pandemic, mask-wearing has become as natural to our daily care routines as washing our hands before snack time. Young children are built to adjust as they learn. They integrate these changes into their frameworks for understanding their world and they develop a sense of identity as a member of a community with common interests and common needs during these preschool years.

Taking care of one another is a significant part of that sense of identity, and the good news is that mask-wearing is safe and significantly reduces transmission, and is most effective when many of us are masked (not just the most vulnerable). Despite initial concerns about the effect of masks on children’s speech development and social emotional learning, there is no evidence of delays in these areas. Moreover, we need only look toward cultures where mask-wearing is much more common to understand that this practice does not significantly impact learning.

EEC’s approach throughout the pandemic has been to tell individual programs to adjust their guidelines “to meet the specific needs... of the population the program serves.” What population do we serve? In a global pandemic, this question unfurls in a way that the EEC guidelines have consistently failed to address.

The very nature of a pandemic is that the risk is not contained within the walls of our classrooms and homes. We are all deeply connected by a highly-transmissible virus that has underscored existing racial, medical, and socioeconomic inequalities. And yet, EEC ended the indoor mask mandate for early childhood programs on Feb. 28, in lockstep with Gov. Charlie Baker, despite recent polling showing that four out of give people in Massachusetts support indoor masking protections.

This rush to unmask places undue burden on disabled children and families in our early childhood communities. Recent models created by epidemiologists and public health experts propose that interventions like mask-wearing can effectively be tied to two factors: vaccination rate and transmission rate.

A letter by over 400 public health researchers and practitioners urges policymakers to consider this guidance, and cities like Philadelphia have done just that. I hope that EEC and other state agencies will design new, more inclusive pandemic protections and attach their eventual reduction and removal to reasonable vaccination and infection rates.

I want to believe that EEC regards disabled children and families like mine as valuable members of the community and worthy of protection and care.

Suzanne Stillinger an early childhood educator at Farm Hands Preschool in Northampton. She is a 2021–2022 Teach Plus Massachusetts Policy Fellow.

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