Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Tips on Talking to Kids on Mask Mandates Being Lifted in Schools

| Mar. 07, 2022

Masking has been symbol of safety for children. We’ve conditioned them to wear a mask for their own protection as well to protect those around them from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. As more states remove mask mandates and schools decide to lift masking policies, it can be a confusing time for children. There may be feelings of fear and anxiety. Whether its elementary, middle school or high school aged kids, now is the time to begin talking about the transition, regardless of whether your child will continue to wear a mask or decide not to.

Here are a few tips on what to include in your conversation as you talk to your kids about this transition period and recommendations from other parents on how they are communicating with their kids.

Explain the science.

While it may be daunting to try to explain the science and nuance behind current pandemic conditions and public health guidance, it is important to be honest and share the reasoning behind the decision of whether your kids will continue to mask or be able to go mask-less. This will help them better understand what is happening around them and not feel as if they are no longer safe. Dr. Nathelia “Tiki” Barnes from Atlanta, GA shares “We talk about the science and the changes that have happened throughout the pandemic.” By having open and honest conversations, her nine-year-old son feels more confident in his decision to continue masking and keep himself and others safe.

Have them feel empowered to ask questions.

This will be a confusing time as kids see some of their friends, teachers and school staff that may have chosen to continue masking and others who have chosen not to. What is important is that your child feels comfortable, recommends Heba Haidar from Ottawa, Ontario and they feel empowered to ask you questions. Dr. Barne shares “I’m here for him to talk through his feelings, concerns, or any confusion he may have based on what he hears [or sees] from friends, the news, or elsewhere.” It is important that parents are a safe place for their children to express how they feel, and that parents model their own feelings, so children know having feelings is a normal reaction. Continue with repeated check ins with your child during this transition period so they can express their feelings.

Talk about being respectful to other people’s decision.

There will be kids and adults who will chose to no longer wear a mask, and others who chose to keep their mask on. Regardless of their decision, it is important we stress kids be respectful and not bully, intimidate or single anyone out. Melissa Henderson from Dallas, TX says “I’m choosing to be open with my son about how all families will make different decisions…and we will be respectful of everyone’s right to choose.”

Ease them into it if needed.

Because children are so conditioned to wearing masks and feeling that they represent safety, some children may be unable to just take them off, all of the time, in every location and situation, right away without experiencing anxiety. Like one of the co-authors, Dr. Syra Madad’s eight-year-old fully vaccinated son, who has chosen to continue masking in all indoor public spaces but her fully vaccinated six-year-old son has decided not to. Parents should allow their children to not wear them gradually and at their own pace. Like exposing them to spiders when they have a fear of it, start with somewhere safe to them, with less people, for a short amount of time (1 minute, for example). Then, increase gradually over time to more crowded locations for longer periods, so that an anxious child might get to the point where not wearing a mask is no longer distressing. Also, once they are comfortable without it, allow them to bring a mask and give themselves breaks by putting it back on, if it feels safer. Eventually, they will be able to tolerate their discomfort and psychologically it will feel better that they did it this way.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Madad, Syra and Jessi Gold.“Tips on Talking to Kids on Mask Mandates Being Lifted in Schools.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 7, 2022.

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