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Learning Bridge Early Education Center, at the corner of Asbury Avenue and Emerson Street in Evanston. (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

As both school districts in Evanston, as well as the city itself, have lifted indoor mask requirements over the last two weeks, some of the last remaining locations with universal mask mandates still in place are local day care programs and preschools. 

The child care facilities still requiring kids and staff to wear masks mostly attribute their policies to the fact that children under 5 years old are not yet eligible for any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines. But in online discussions and emails to the media, some local parents argue that continued mask mandates at these early childhood centers are putting more of the burden of the pandemic on the youngest kids in Evanston, who are still learning to communicate with others and express emotion. 

Diana Tang, a local parent of two kids under 5 plus an 8-year-old, said her 2-year-old was recently diagnosed with a speech delay, while her 4-year-old is hearing impaired due to a condition called microtia. 

“Masking is difficult for him because he can’t read lips,” Tang said. “For someone who is hearing impaired, reading lips is really how they communicate, and he’s been masked from the time he was 2 until now; he’s 4½. And I really worry about that long-term getting in his way.”

On Feb. 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 mitigation guidelines to recommend masks only in areas of high community transmission of the disease. The CDC currently lists Cook County as a region of low risk, only encouraging residents to “stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines” and to “get tested if you have symptoms.” 

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services recently released updated guidance for masking in child care settings based on the CDC’s new recommendations. In a Feb. 28 press release, DCFS wrote that “Governor JB Pritzker lifted the state’s indoor masking requirements, including the use of face coverings in day care settings,” and adding that the CDC is reworking its COVID-19 guidance for early childhood education. 

Tang and Jennifer Cutler, another Evanston parent of kids under 5, said that despite children under 5 not being able to get vaccinated, kids are at a low risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The Mayo Clinic has reported that up to 50% of children and adolescents who contract the virus are asymptomatic, and the Harvard Medical School has written that kids who “do get sick tend to experience milder symptoms.”

“Toddlers, as a demographic, have always been among the least at risk for serious complications from COVID-19, while being the most likely to suffer negative consequences from prolonged mask-wearing,” Cutler said. “They’re also the least able to wear masks correctly.”

But Lindsay Percival, the executive director of the Learning Bridge Early Education Center in Evanston – which is still requiring masks – said that day care facilities and preschools are in a particularly difficult situation right now. While public health guidance has shifted toward mask-optional policies in schools and most other settings, many people still want mask mandates for the youngest children until they can get vaccinated. 

And on top of that challenge, much of the public discourse over mitigation policies has focused on K-12 education, while early childhood centers have been left to figure out their strategies on their own.

“I think it’s hard for us as we have been told mask, mask, mask for two years. Then we are told to improve our masks, so we brought higher quality masks for our staff,” Percival said. “Now, in one day, we don’t need them anymore. As per usual, the early childhood community is the last to get information and guidance.”

This week, Learning Bridge had to close one of its classrooms due to COVID-19 concerns, and a teacher currently has a baby on a ventilator at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, according to Percival.

“This is why we are still masking,” she told the RoundTable on Thursday.

Kyle Davis, who also has a son in an Evanston preschool, said that while quality, well-fitting masks work quite well to prevent infection, according to doctors and scientists around the world, no one can know for sure what the long-term impacts of masking, social distancing and remote learning will be for young children.

“We have been conducting what amounts to a giant experiment,” Davis said. “We have an entire generation of children who have passed through a large part of early childhood development hardly ever seeing their peers’ faces unmasked. What are the effects of this? No one can answer that question, because there’s absolutely no precedent.”

Cutler and Tang said the masking recommendations for preschools in the United States have differed significantly from policies in Europe and other parts of the world. In fact, a report from the World Health Organization’s European Technical Advisory Group for schooling specifically stated that “children up to the age of 5 should not wear masks.” 

In contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated in its recommendations that “all students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear well-fitting face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use), regardless  of vaccination status.”

In a recent article for Scientific American, David J. Lewkowicz, a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories and an adjunct professor in the Yale Child Study Center, wrote that research shows how lip-reading and an ability to see visible expressions help babies better develop communication and language skills. As a result, “masks probably hinder babies’ acquisition of speech and language,” Lewkowicz commented.

But he also concluded that everyone, including children under 5, should wear masks in indoor settings to fight COVID-19 infection, and advocated that families should spend as much time as possible on unmasked, face-to-face communication at home with their children.

Ultimately, some parents in Evanston are concerned about the long-term consequences of their young children wearing masks for eight hours a day at an age when speech and emotional development are key. At this point, 86% of the local population over 5 is fully vaccinated; in Tang’s view, that offers far more protection from COVID-19 than requiring 2-year-olds to wear masks. 

“I think we’re making them carry a very heavy burden, even just [saying] that if you don’t wear a mask, you’re going to hurt one of your loved ones, maybe even kill one of your loved ones,” Tang said. “That’s frightening, and I don’t think it’s accurate, at this point. Your loved ones need to get vaccinated.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. This article focuses, appropriately, on masking young children. The headline, however, could be read to imply that the article also deals with other Evanston sites that require masking. Some, such as medical facilities and public transit, are obvious. Others, such as assisted living, or even independent living within retiree communities, are also difficult situations. What if a visting toddler or that child’s non-symptomatic parent, infects a grandparent who, even though vaxxed (90, not 100 percent effective), is highly vulnerable to serious or fatal illness?