COLORADO SPRINGS — With rising concerns over the impact masks can have on children's mental health, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment issued new guidance to help address it.
The agency said in part," while they understand children may find masks and uncomfortable or distracting, there is no persuasive evidence that masks affect their mental health." They go on to say that they will likely get used to them and studies show that masks are unlikely to impair social interactions.
"When I saw CDPHE put this statement out my first reaction and thought was that it is completely incorrect, there is plenty of evidence, plenty of studies, and anecdotal evidence. There are two different kinds of research we can look at, there is anecdotal evidence which is experienced-based and then there is overwhelming evidence from the World Health Organization and studies from all around the world, " said Meral Sarper, Pueblo parent and teacher.
As an educator, Sarper says she's seen the impact masking has had in the classroom.
"Last year was challenging, second and third grade above were required to wear masks but it was challenging for those grades because of the efficiency of wearing a mask. Also for children with breathing, social and emotional, and anxiety issues. There is also a concern of hypoxia, breathing in those toxins over and over again. Masks dropped on the floor and put right back on the face, and children trying to drink through their masks," Sarper.
She's also seen the mental health impact it's had on children in the classroom.
"I've had students tell me I need a mask break and I say you can go outside and do that. Well, I feel bad so it creates this weird dynamic where kids feel like they are hurting other people when there is no reason for that, especially if they are healthy, not ill," said Sarper.
She is among a group of parents, teachers, and community members called the "Fearless School Movement." The group created a resource bank to help provide education on masks and among other things.
"What do the experts say about masking children? WHO and UNICEF specifically state that children aged five years and under should not be required to wear masks. Just by virtue of the statement alone and the research that it's referenced from, two-year-olds being included in that for daycares and youth camps is absolutely ridiculous," said Sarper. "What about the psychological impacts of not being able to see social and emotional cues and encouraging mouth breathing which we know is harmful for our health."
Other parents like Lara Matisek agree with the guidance.
"I agree with this statement that they have made because the science is loud and clear when it comes to mask-wearing. It doesn't have a detrimental or negative effect on children's psychological or mental health areas. I think people are conflating the fact that kids having to stay home, quarantine, homeschool or isolate is the driving factor of higher suicide rates and things going on with mental health, " said Matisek.
She's homeschooling her nine-year-old daughter for the second year in a row due to the lack of mask-wearing in Academy School District 20.
"That certainly has more of an impact. She'll happily wear a mask in school among peers to stay safe so I think people are blaming the wrong culprit here," said Matisek. "When you politicize public health, people die and children die and that is exactly what is happening. I think people in the United States are forgetting the immense amount of privilege that we have to have such amazing access to highly effective medical-grade masks, social distancing, get soap and hand sanitizer, and vaccines. There is a lot of misinformation out there and it's because there is a lot of politicizing of a public health issue."
Matisek says she's done her own research on the masks, and there is no evidence that masks affect physical and emotional health.
"My research leads me back to peer-reviewed published data that says it's not true. Of course, not all masks are created equal so there are better masks children can be using that are disposable and one-time use. Even the cloth they are wearing you can wash if you're worried about bacteria. Unfortunately, parents who are saying those things about masks, creating more harm than good, are falling prey to misinformation and propaganda coming out of the Russian and Chinese governments."
Health experts at the Children's Hospital Colorado say masking can actually benefit children.
"We've heard from individuals in our community that mask-wearing can potentially cause negative side effects toward mental health. In fact, the medical experts believe something a little bit different, we believe it helps with mental health. It's empowering for kids to take control over their physical well-being by masking. Additionally, we know it decreases the transmission of a lot of the different viruses that are going around, including COVD-19, and will allow kids to stay in school. It's that social isolation that we saw in 2020 that we believe was the reason for the mental health emergency Children's Colorado declared earlier this year," said Dr. Michael DiStefano, chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs.
He says there have also been concerns with developmental milestones, specifically around speech, and children getting sick from masking.
"We've been masking for decades in the health industry and there are no negative side effects," said DiStefano.
"We understand kids may tend to think for themselves, sometimes when they don't understand all of the issues at play. As a parent and pediatrician, what I recommend is to go to the store and let them pick out the mask that they would like to wear. Model the behavior you would like to see, and what I've done with my own children, allow them to connect with the other children that are choosing to wear a mask at school."
Children's Hospital Colorado has online resources for families interested in learning more about masks. click here.