What parents can do now to help prepare their children to wear masks at school

It’s back-to-school time, and like so many things in 2020, this school year will be like no other for students, parents and teachers.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed nearly everything in our world, and education is no exception. As the summer winds down and teachers and staff prepare to welcome students back to school in the coming days and weeks, schools planning in-person learning options are working diligently to follow safety guidelines.

Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statewide mask mandate for K-12 students headed to school for in-person learning this fall. The mandate makes exceptions for children with certain medical conditions.

For many students, wearing a mask throughout the entire school day will be one of the biggest adjustments they face.

There are things parents and children can do now at home to help make that transition easier, according to experts at Dayton Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Michael Klatte, the new division chief of infectious disease at Dayton Children’s, said first and foremost, he can’t emphasize enough the importance of everyone over the age of 2 years old wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s particularly important that kids wear masks since they are more inclined to be around each other in larger groups,” Klatte said. “Kids may not have symptoms as severe as those in adults, but they can still spread the disease.

While much is still unknown about COVID-19, public health experts continue to emphasize that masks/face coverings have been proven to help decrease the risk of disease transmission and spread. If schools are to remain open with children in classrooms, consistent mask wearing is vital.

“I think one of the most important things parents can do right now is get their children comfortable with wearing the masks,” Klatte said. “It’s new for all of us, no matter the age.”

Credit: Jennifer McCray

Credit: Jennifer McCray

How parents can help their children prepare

As summer winds down, there is no better time for children to get accustomed to wearing masks or facial coverings.

Mary Beth Thomas, an instructional coach at Perrin Woods Elementary School in Springfield and a former kindergarten teacher in the Trotwood-Madison district said, like most everything, it all begins with the parents.

“Parents’ attitudes about masks will carry over to the children,” Thomas said. “They need to make it feel normal to wear a mask.”

Here are some ways parents can help their children prepare for that transition at home.

Credit: Jennifer McCray

Credit: Jennifer McCray

Talk to children about why they will be wearing masks

“In terms of talking about mask wearing with children, I think it depends upon the age and maturity level of the child,” Klatte said. “It’s going to be easier to explain to older children why we should be wearing masks.”

Thomas recommends talking to children about how wearing masks is a way to help others as well as themselves.

The “helpful mindset” seems easier for young children to understand, she said.

Thomas also recommends discussing germs in a developmentally appropriate way so that children understand why they are being asked to wear masks, wash their hands more frequently and avoid touching their faces.

Wear masks while doing a fun activity at home

In the remaining days before school resumes, parents can help their children practice wearing masks at home and consider pairing it with a preferred activity.

“I saw something online that suggested if a child wanted to spend time on electronics, parents should require them to wear a mask while they were doing that,” Thomas said. “This prepares them to wear masks for extended periods of time and builds their endurance.”

Credit: Jennifer McCray

Credit: Jennifer McCray

Wear masks in public

Klatte said that requiring children to wear masks whenever they are out in public is also a way to get them used to wearing them to school.

“If you take your children to the store, make them wear a mask,” Klatte said. “Slowly increase the duration of mask-wearing each day and they will be ready to go back to school for in-person learning.”

Let children help pick their own masks

Klatte said he allowed his children to choose special masks “only for them,” which he said has eased the anxiety of the situation tremendously. Each child has two or three masks that are uniquely their own.

Credit: Jennifer McCray

Credit: Jennifer McCray

Praise and encourage them

“The most important thing is to make it as normal as possible,” Thomas said. “Parents should model wearing masks and never verbalize about how uncomfortable they are. There are so many cute masks out there and kids can choose their own. Parents should also praise children and encourage them as they remember to wear their masks on their own.”

“Masks are becoming a daily life skill,” Thomas said. “This is much like wearing a seatbelt or being in a car seat!”

Understand your school’s policies and plans

Most parents considering sending their children back to class for in-person instruction naturally have questions about what districts are doing to keep everyone safe.

Dayton Children’s staff in addition to health departments are working with local school districts to ensure they are providing the most up-to-date, expert advice for parents, school staff and children as a new school year approaches.

“I think it’s important for parents to have a solid understanding of what their children’s school’s policies and procedures are and how they plan to enforce these,” Klatte said. “It seems like most school districts are doing a fantastic job preparing for school.”

TIPS: How to make mask-wearing easier

Kids are resilient. With a little effort, planning and patience, most children will overcome any issues with wearing a mask. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Give it time. Give kids time to practice wearing their masks before they need to wear one outside of your home. Teach them how to put them on and take them off. Wear them for short periods of time at home and slowly increase the length of time.
  • Encourage kids to decorate their mask. This might help them feel a sense of ownership and control over the situation. A personal touch can help make it more of a normal part of their routine, and they will be more likely to want to wear their mask. Depending on the type of mask, kids can draw on it with markers or put stickers on it.
  • Make them together. If you make masks or cloth face coverings at home, let older kids help you. There are no-sew masks that are easy to make, often with materials you probably already have (T-shirts, bandannas, etc.). If you sew masks, kids can select the fabric.
  • Make it fun. With younger kids, introduce a sense of play. Kids can pretend to be a doctor or nurse while wearing their masks. They might want to use a doctor kit and “take care” of a stuffed animal or doll. Play ninja or superhero with masks on in the house.
  • Use a mask during playtime. This makes a mask part of their normal world and lets them use their imagination. You can ask your child to put a mask on a stuffed animal and then ask follow-up questions about why the stuffed animal is wearing the mask. Depending on your child’s response, you can clear up any confusion and offer reassurance.
  • Set the example. Kids want to be like their parents and older siblings. If they see you do it as part of your routine, they are more likely to do it, too.
  • Try different styles. One size or shape does not fit all. Some have elastic around the ears and some are more scarf-like. Some are cloth and some feel more like paper. Try a variety of styles to find a comfortable fit. This will help increase the length of time your child will want to wear the mask.

Source: Dayton Children’s Hospital

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