Parent putting a mask on a child. Back to school concept during COVID-19 pandemic.
Credit: Volurol / Shutterstock

HARTFORD, CT – After more than a year of mask-wearing for younger children, many parents across the state are evaluating whether it’s had an effect on their children’s social skills. 

“My daughter is adjusting,” Waterbury resident Erica Mendes said. “Sometimes when she doesn’t recognize the person, she cries and tunnel hugs me. It just depends on the person and where we are.” 

The Centers for Disease Control announced Tuesday that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas with significant virus transmission; Gov. Ned Lamont said Connecticut would likely make similar recommendations. Meanwhile, education officials are waiting for guidance on what to expect when school starts next month. 

That means the masks may be here to stay for awhile. Have they had measurable impact on kids?

In a study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, 81 children from the ages of 7 to 13 were studied on their ability to distinguish facial expressions from different sequences. 

The findings revealed minimal effects on children’s capability to comprehend emotions without a mask. 

“Masks seem to have the greatest effect on children’s inferences about facial configurations associated with ‘fear,’ which were commonly identified as ‘surprised’ when the mouth and nose were covered,” the researchers wrote in the study. “Thus, although children may require more visual facial information to infer emotions with masks, children may reasonably infer whether someone wearing a mask is sad or angry, based on the eye region alone.”

The researchers discovered that children’s accuracy with masked faces wasn’t significantly different from faces that wore sunglasses — an aspect that children encountered pre-pandemic. 

Dr. Robert Keder, developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, echoed the same findings from his encounters. He said children are still learning from their environment at home. 

“We start learning to read facial expressions as babies,” Keder said. “Part of that, we’re still at home and we’re still with our families, so we get to do that and we get to practice that.” 

Prospect resident Jennifer Lee said she kept socialization to close family and friends during quarantine, but said there was minimal change in her children’s experiences at home throughout the entirety of the pandemic. 

“I don’t think wearing a mask really affected them too much,” Lee said. “As far as blocking facial expressions, they were able to see people on TV at home and outdoors.” 

Other parents across the state have emphasized how their fears about introducing their children into a post-pandemic lifestyle have blossomed into more favorable circumstances for their families. 

Hamden resident and mother of two Kathy Monigan said engaging with her children at home was helpful, but called it a “social blessing” to watch her son go back to playing with other kids his own age at preschool.

“When my son returned to preschool, we were concerned about how he would handle the transition,” Monigan said. “It had been so long since he engaged with anyone outside our household. But as soon as he was able to consistently be around peers, he thrived.”

Monigan said she was more nervous about her younger daughter due to her lack of solidified language skills, but discovered resilience in both of her children.  

“We were concerned that facial expression and watching others form words would hinder her ability to pick up verbal skills,” Monigan said. “But, like our son, she has nullified those concerns and has a fairly advanced ability to parrot words and already has an extensive vocabulary.”

Keder said the pandemic created opportunities for parents to talk to their children about their feelings and emotions to offset any downside from wearing masks.

“There are other ways that children can get the information, social skills and opportunities,” Keder said. “The masking won’t hurt the child. If anything, the mask is the ticket so the child can be in an environment where they can interact with other kids and learn things.”