If the masking of children at school continues, some speech therapists say teachers may need to make adjustments, including re-equipping classrooms with soundboards.
Classrooms will have to make adjustments if mask mandates continue long-term in schools, say speech-language pathologists in British Columbia.
“Classrooms are already challenging listening environments with background noise and distance from teachers. “Masks especially muffle high-frequency sounds in speech,” says Lynda Gibbons, director of Speech and Language Pathology and Audiology Canada (ASC).
Even before the pandemic, statistics show that one in 10 students has a language impairment and one in five has hearing loss, which impacts speech development in younger children, according to Gibbons.
“We know that wearing a mask changes communications for everyone,” she adds. “As usual with COVID, we are putting high-risk children at a greater disadvantage.”
A provincial review of British Columbia’s remaining pandemic restrictions is expected by March 15. It is unclear whether masks in schools will be addressed.
But the specter of the emergence of a new variant questions these experts on the prolonged wearing of the mask in young children, in particular under the age of nine: what are the benefits? What harm can it do? Do the costs outweigh the benefits?
Becca Yu, a licensed pediatric speech-language pathologist in British Columbia, says that while there have been anecdotal claims that masks have had a negative impact on children’s development, there is no scientific proof.
That doesn’t mean the potential risks aren’t worth investigating, she says.
“We as a world, planet Earth and as humans – we’ve never done this before. And so this long-term wearing of masks for many different seasons and the ongoing pandemic – we don’t know not really what the long-term consequences are,” says Yu, who is also a member of Speech and Hearing BC.
Yu notes that children in kindergarten through 3rd grade are still developing key communication skills, although they already have a lot of language skills in place.
Caroline Erdos, speech therapist and prominent SAC member, points out that teaching literacy can be complicated by masks because they can dampen a teacher’s speech.
“There are reports of language delays, but it’s unclear what caused this discrepancy,” she said, noting that various other pandemic disruptions to education have occurred, including online learning prolonged and social distancing.
Nonetheless, Yu, Gibbons, and Erdos struggle to find scientific studies on masking and developing speech and literacy for this young cohort of students.
Neither Speech and Language BC nor SAC have an official position on masking. While all of Glacier Media’s speech pathologists have spoken of wanting a better understanding of the potential impacts of masking, they are still advocating for them to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I’m more concerned about the health effects of COVID,” Erdos said.
Yu said studies still need to be fleshed out if the increase in diagnoses of speech or language difficulties compared to before the pandemic is a result of masking.
“There are a number of factors that they’re going to have to sort out,” Yu said. “Is it the mask? Is the social interaction reduced? Is it a combination of the two? Are there other factors at play that the researchers did not examine or identify? »
If masking continues for young children in schools, teachers may need to make adjustments, Gibbons and Erdos said, including using audio devices in their rooms and transparent masks. Classrooms may also need to be equipped with soundboards, they say.
The coalition wants the masks to stay
Others advocate that mask use continue in schools, including the use of publicly available N95s.
One such group, the Safe Schools Coalition BC, is calling for the masks to stay.
“Masks are one of the most effective tools to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in classrooms,” he says in a Change.org petition. “Our schools do not have the ability to practice social distancing, and only a small percentage of schools have made significant indoor air quality improvements that will mitigate the risk of transmission in schools.”
The group said there remained unknown risks of prolonged effects from COVID, linking it to how chickenpox is now known to cause shingles.
The group says the masks protect clinically vulnerable children, such as those with diabetes, who are more affected by COVID.
Dr. Sally Otto, an evolutionary biologist with the group Protect our Province, strongly advocates masking in schools and told Glacier Media that masking should continue as long as the Omicron strain persists.
The strain’s impact can be seen in the four weeks leading up to Feb. 15, when the BC Center for Disease Control (BCCDC) reported that 24 children between the ages of 5 and 11 had been hospitalized with COVID-19, including four in intensive care. Compare that to the total of 104 children in this age range who have been hospitalized, including 10 in intensive care, since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Lack of consensus on the effectiveness of masks for children
The US Center for Disease Control has taken a tough line, recommending masks for children over the age of two.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not recommend masks for children under six. Additionally, the WHO states that a risk-based approach should apply to students aged 6 to 11, and such an approach should take into account “the potential impact of mask-wearing on learning and performance. psychosocial development” as well as “the child’s ability to comply with the appropriate use of masks.
In Canada, British Columbia was one of the last jurisdictions to mandate masks for children ages 5-8.
In October 2021, in response to rising rates of COVID-19 in children under 12, the province updated its K-12 ordinance to require masks for kindergarten students. in the 3rd year. This meant students in kindergarten to grade 3 were mask-free for an entire month, unlike their older colleagues. Both cohorts were unvaccinated.
Testing data showed infection rates for both cohorts rose at almost the same rate for September, with older masked children having a slightly higher rate. Meanwhile, older vaccinated children (grades 7 and up) saw their infection rates decline throughout the fall.
The BCCDC assessed the results noting in its October 2021 school report: “Masks can provide an extra layer of protection against COVID-19 transmission; however, it is difficult to assess the impact of mask-wearing on younger students. Many factors contribute to the risk of COVID-19 infection, including rates in the community, vaccination coverage, and contact with others through social media. The fact that rates are higher in 9-11 year olds does not mean there is no benefit to masking, but rather suggests that there are many risk factors.
British Columbia provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry explained that despite the September data, the masking order has been issued with the Delta variant infecting more children.
“As we moved to more infectious strains and had these outbreaks, it became more important to have that extra barrier in place for younger students as well,” she said.
Henry couldn’t say for sure how much the masks helped.
“It’s really hard to stand out. Was it the mask that made the difference, or was it because we changed seats or because we changed cohorts? So it’s very difficult to understand what proportion of the risk was attributable to wearing or not wearing masks,” Henry said. “It’s really an all-encompassing function of all the different pieces that need to be in place.”
It is for this reason that speech therapist Sarah Dooge would like to see a more in-depth cost-benefit analysis of masking very young children. She points to what, to her as a parent, seems to be ineffective and inconsistent mask-wearing among children.
“Look at a bunch of kindergarten kids with masks on,” she says. “Think of the amount of energy and effort, time and money that went into getting that five-year-old to mask that day. Observe how they wear a mask in the classroom and in the school community. Did the cost of effort, energy and stress outweigh the benefits?
One of the biggest proponents of masking young children is the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the major union representing registered teachers.
BCTF President Terri Mooring declined Glacier Media’s request for comment on the potential impacts of masks on learning and referred to the province’s public health guidelines in schools.
Glacier Media reached out to the Department of Health, BC Children’s Hospital, Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health with questions about student development and masking wellness, but none responded.