Parents of young kids struggle with return to school, mask-wearing as COVID-19 cases rise

Watching a baseball game wearing face masks. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Watching a baseball game wearing face masks. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The global COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life for more than a year and a half, and for many young children, that's a significant portion of their lives. As pandemic toddlers age into preschool, parents are left to make hard decisions about how comfortable they feel socializing little ones who haven't had as much interaction with their peers as previous generations.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children ages 2 and up wear a mask when they're in indoor public spaces and around people who aren't in their households. But mask-wearing abilities can be iffy in younger children. Couple that with the rise of the Delta variant and some parents are seriously stressed about whether it's OK to send their younger children to school — even though they feel kids need social interaction.

Molly George is a Texas mom of two boys, ages 2 and 4, who owns her own public relations firm. She tells Yahoo Life that she has concerns about her younger son being socialized. "COVID hit when he was about 7 months old, so he has had very little socialization beyond my husband, myself and our amazing nanny who came on to help with him several months into the pandemic when we decided to push daycare for another year out of concerns for his exposure," she says. "We are in the midst of seeing the impact there — he was later to start talking ... and it is like night and day between him and our older son." George said while her 2-year-old recently started daycare, her family is "just trying to remind ourselves that he’s starting in a bit of a social deficit."

Megan Luczko Filson, of Los Angeles, is mom to 3-year-old Striver, who has a serious congenital heart defect that has required him to have three open-heart surgeries. Because of Striver's condition and the pandemic, Filson tells Yahoo Life that she and her husband needed to keep him home for a year and a half, during which "his development fell way behind."

"I worry about keeping him home again, because of adults not doing their part," she says. "For littles, masks help [control] the spread, of course. But, to me, it is also representative of what parents are willing to do at home. Like is the anti-masker also the send-your-kid-to-school-on-Tylenol parent? The lying about contact with an exposure? If everyone tries to do their part, our kids will be so much safer in school, even though their masks will inevitably fall down."

Texas mom Victoria Jones tells Yahoo Life that her 3-year-old son, Lukah, "hates" wearing masks, which has made taking him out in public for long periods of time "a hassle."

"I would love for him to be able to play with other kids besides his baby brother, but it’s not worth the risk," she says. "He’s too young to be vaccinated and isn’t great with masks, so socialization is limited to immediate family members."

Illinois mom of four Nicole Evert has had a similar struggle with her 3-year-old daughter. "Her inability to wear a mask did impact our ability to comfortably take her in public, and we did not send her to school, daycare or any outside the home activities," she tells Yahoo Life. "Even her early intervention services remained teletherapy until she aged out at 3. Then her school services were teletherapy."

Despite many parental concerns, experts say children who need to delay schooling due to COVID-19 concerns and issues with mask-wearing should be just fine from a developmental perspective. "Starting school at an older age is no different than starting a first day of school at any other time," Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "Not all kids start preschool at 2 or 3. It's not like this is part of a life process that every single child in the world goes to school at this age."

Still, many children will likely experience a "transition period" at school, regardless of the age they start, Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., tells Yahoo Life. "There are expectations of behavior in preschool that are not typically necessary at home —lining up, being assigned a seat, staying in a seat, raising hands to take turns, et cetera," she says. Cadieux points out that children can practice some of these skills — but not all — at home with parents, siblings or other family members. And that can cause these children to be slightly behind their peers when they start school.

"Though we don’t know the full effect of COVID on the social development of young children, the lengthy period of having limited social contact likely decreased their opportunities to practice early social skills, and therefore they may need more time and guidance to learn these skills once they are around same-aged peers," she says.

Dr. Katie K. Lockwood, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, agrees. But, she says, parents shouldn't stress too much over it. "Many kids start preschool without prior childcare experience, so this transition shouldn't be too hard for most children," she tells Yahoo Life. "For children who are slow to warm up, the transition for pandemic social distancing to a classroom may take more time."

Lockwood says that parents need to make decisions that feel right for their family and personal situation when it comes to socializing their young children. "Socialization is important, but each family must weigh the risks and benefits of childcare during the pandemic," she says. "The decision will be different for each family based on their own needs and family risk factors, as well as geographic location and school safety precautions."

Mendez points out that socialization "begins at birth" with a baby's family and says that parents of pandemic toddlers shouldn't become overly stressed about deferring preschool or not playing with same-aged peers a lot. Kids get socialized within their own families, she says, adding, "that should not have been hampered in any way, regardless of the pandemic."

If you decide to keep your child home and you're able to afford it, Lockwood recommends doing other things for socialization, like socially distant outdoor playdates or socializing with a small pod of families who you know are doing their best to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. "If no opportunities to play with other children, parents can engage their own child in cooperative play, such as board games, team sports and puzzles," she says. "You can also challenge their imagination by giving them opportunities to be creative and following their lead."

If difficulty with mask-wearing is holding your child back from going out in public or socializing with their peers, experts say there are a few things you can do. The first, Cadieux says, is for you to wear a mask in public too. "It is harder to convince a child to wear a mask when a parent is not wearing one," she points out.

You can also practice wearing masks at home. "Use lots of encouragement and praise," Cadieux says. "Play a game of how long can your child keep the mask on using a timer and trying to have your child beat that time."

Lockwood suggests starting slow. "You can start by wearing a mask for short periods of time and gradually expand this," she says. "You can give your child rewards for proper mask-wearing until they get the hang of it, just as you would for potty training or picky eating behaviors." She also suggests letting children pick out their own mask to help them get excited about wearing one.

When you're out in public, Cadieux suggests using "gentle reminders" for keeping the mask over their nose and mouth and praising your child for doing it. "Use a sticker chart if your child needs more reinforcement to keep the mask on," she says. And, when you can, "look for opportunities to give your child a break from the mask when in public," Cadieux says.

Mom of four and Upparent, a parent-to-parent socialization site, co-founder Alexandra Fung tells Yahoo Life that she has had success with getting fun masks for her kids. "Once we found a handmade Minecraft mask, my son was so excited about it, and now he always asks to wear it and shows it off to his siblings," she says. Fung says she also started her younger son off slowly with mask-wearing, before building him up to longer sessions. "I think it probably helped that he only ever had to wear it for relatively short periods of time, especially early on when we went out so infrequently, as it gave him time to get used to it without it having to stay on him for an entire morning or even a full school day," she says.

Filson says that she used "pure bribery" at first with her son. "We trained him ahead of time and practiced at home," she says. "As long as he had the mask on, he could be watching a YouTube video." Eventually, Filson says, Striver "got more and more comfortable wearing the mask without a screen."

George says her family has tried to reposition mask-wearing as something her children get to do vs. something that they have to do. "We practice in situations where we don't have to wear them too, so there's less pressure," she says.

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