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To Mask or Not to Mask Our Grandchildren? That is the Question.

Policy makers should consider all the factors that impact on children’s lives.
August 26th, 2021

by Jim Towey

My wife and I have five kids and two grandsons.  The older we get, the less we care about our own fortunes, and the more we care about future generations.  That is why senior citizens vote faithfully, contribute generously to charities, and engage in the lives of their “grands” and “great grands” and communities.  They want to leave the earth in a better place than they found it, leaving brighter futures for their successors. 

This phenomenon explains the broad consensus in America in favor of public policies that promote the health and well-being of children.  It also explains why the debate over the mandatory masking of school kids is so divisive and adversarial.  It brings out the lion or lioness in all of us when we see a threat in broad daylight that endangers the offspring we love.  And it explains why a discussion about mandatory masking of children changes few minds.    

Equal treatment

It doesn’t have to be this way.  If we all agree that the interests of children must come first, which elders readily believe, then why can’t we have a rational public discussion that weighs all of the evidence and balances all of the interests, as any policy argument should? 

The reason this has not taken place is that while there has been much said about the merits of mask mandates to combat the spread of infectious disease, there has not been an equal government effort to present the likely effect which these mandates may have on the mental health and development of these same children.  Can any of us cite a single federal government pronouncement during the last 18 months on the likely social, emotional, psychological, and educational effects that mask-wearing may have on young people? 

It seems to me that there cannot be a balanced discussion about the mandatory use of masks by school-age children without this important consideration placed before concerned parents and the public at large.  That isn’t the job of those tasked with stopping the spread of an infectious disease, and therefore, other voices must be engaged in the formulation of mask mandate recommendations, including child development and mental health experts. 

Emotional, mental impacts

Ask any teacher, anywhere.  There are widespread reports of unprecedented mental health challenges in our schools, including depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideations, among all age groups.  Wouldn’t the public debate be enriched with an analysis of the impact mask-wearing might be having in driving those ominous trends?  Are we surveying K-12 parents and students about the effects of lost smiles of classmates or concerned looks of teachers, and most of all, of a lessened presentation of their human dignity and individuality when their beautiful, God-given faces are half-hidden? How are their studies and mental health being affected?

Absent a balanced presentation of the upsides and downsides of mask mandates for children, distrust in government grows.  Fears are stoked with each Covid death or ICU hospitalization of a child anywhere in America.  The thinking goes, “That child could have been mine.  We must do everything we can to stop the spread of Covid – NOW!”  That reaction is understandable. But policy-by-anecdote is dangerous and unscientific and no society can prosper that is built around risk aversion instead of risk avoidance and management. 

The missing piece

Infectious disease is a grave concern for children and adults alike.  A fair reading of the data on Covid shows that these groups have diametrically opposite outcomes in terms of hospitalization or death rates.  However, seniors and kids are closely aligned in this pandemic on matters of mental health, and I have written at length about the dangers of isolation for our elderly. 

Policymakers must protect mental health and psycho-social development so the old and young can thrive.  That is why our policies must be centered on data and analysis, and governed by facts, not fears.  As of now, a piece is missing from the public-policy puzzle, which explains why the mandatory-masking-of-children debate remains as volatile and unresolved as ever.

Seniors can only be heartbroken by this impasse.  The brighter futures they want for America’s youth seem to be slipping out of reach.


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