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Experts available on the use of masks, social distancing in schools to stem spread of COVID-19

Faculty from education, communication, medicine address uncertainties

EVANSTON, Ill. — Uncertainties about the reopening of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified this week with President Donald Trump and the head of the Centers for Disease Control sparring over guidelines for reopening and what measures schools should consider to limit the spread of the virus, if they do open. 

Experts agree that parents, educators, and policymakers should make the decision to reopen based on the recommendations of public health officials on when it is safe to reopen. This will vary from state to state and even city to city.

Terri Sabol is an assistant professor human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy and a former elementary school teacher. Her research focuses on the individual and environmental factors that lead to healthy child development.

Quote from Professor Sabol

“Schools are faced with a nearly impossible task: prioritize the health and safety of teachers, students, and their families while ensuring that education meets the needs of young children and families (a task that would not be necessary if our COVID numbers were declining). It is possible to strike a balance between public health concerns and the developmental needs of young children and their families. But it will not be easy.

"Safety precautions for schools that serve young children will have to look different compared to schools that serve older children. For instance, it is not reasonable or developmentally appropriate to expect young children to practice social distancing in a classroom. If you have ever been in a high-quality preschool classroom, you know that they are loud, interactive, and buzzing with excitement. On any given day, you may find teachers and children huddling over a sunflower plant, carefully picking out seeds with a tweezer while guessing and predicting how it grew. At the same time, a separate group of children may play doctor and patient in dress-up area while two children paint a picture together at the easel. It is through these interactions that children learn, grow and create. These active, dynamic interactions cannot simply be replaced with individual desks 6-feet apart (nor could young children even sit in a desk all day if we tried)."

Dr. Sadiya Khan is assistant professor of preventive medicine in epidemiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.  

Quote from Dr. Khan

"Recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics are that children age 2 years and up should wear a mask and/or cloth covering if not able to socially/physically distance," Khan said. "The most important thing is to ensure that it is comfortable and fits well, covering the nose and mouth. It is also important to remember to wash hands before and after putting it on and taking it off.

"Based on personal experience with two small children (age 2 and 3 years), eliminate the fear factor and normalize wearing masks by showing yourself wearing them as well as having their stuffed animals wear them. It has quickly become part of my children's 'normal' and they remind me to wear one before we leave the house."

Adriana Weisleder is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and Director of the Child Language Lab. Her research investigates early language development and processing in young children from diverse linguistic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with a focus on dual language learners.

Quote from Professor Weisleder

“We know children in bilingual environments pay more attention to a speaker’s mouth than monolingual children, suggesting they may rely more on visual cues to learn language.  So there are potential implications of mask-use for dual language learners that we will want to keep an eye on. On the other hand, children are also remarkably adaptable and may learn to rely on other kinds of cues in this environment.”