The Preschool Mask Mandate
Michael Reisman, M.Ed.
Director of Early Childhood Education
Today the New Jersey Division of Children and Families issued guidelines for the Governor’s Executive order requiring masks be worn by children over age two in our facilities. At first glance, the executive order may make some parents feel uneasy. This is understandable. It is the role of leaders in early childhood programs to help parents make sense of the guidelines, and I encourage you to consider the context of the mandates, and the impact on your child’s experience in licensed, high quality early education and care.
- In general, children in our programs do not have strong feelings about wearing a mask in preschool.
Yes, the masks are annoying, and take some getting used to. However, similar to wearing a bandage, cast, new pair of shoes, or any other new clothing (see: underwear), children are quick to adapt to change. Children have their own motivations and priorities when in class. These priorities are often seeking attention, affirmation and acceptance from teachers and peers, playing with a preferred toy, eating snack, and/or being the line-leader, to name a few. What is necessary in our classrooms, are compassion, patience and warmth from teachers and friends as we adapt to health and safety requirements.
- Teachers AND children get mask breaks.
While eating and sleeping, the children need not wear masks. Children will be able to play outside without a mask. This will be a welcome respite from their indoor mask time. Regardless, we have learned throughout the pandemic that contagious close contact is defined as being inside of six feet of another individual for 15 minutes or longer, cumulatively, over a 24-hour period. Close contact between teachers and young children, with the exception of diaper-changing, generally does not take more than a few minutes. There will be times when a teacher or child will need to pull a mask down to accomplish communication and understanding. Using critical judgment, and their experience working in the pandemic environment, our teachers are able to accomplish learning goals lovingly and compassionately, without compromising health and safety.
- Children easily understand the health benefits of mask-wearing.
Children are very smart, and unencumbered by abstract notions and philosophical distractions. They understand that in our classrooms, we take care of each other, and help each other. Just like we cover our coughs and sneezes to prevent the spread of germs, three-to-five year old children understand, or are beginning to learn, that masks prevent the spread of germ droplets, and that the germ droplets are what make other people sick.
- Children entering, or returning to, classrooms following up to a year of mostly being at home have catching up to do in social-emotional learning.
Early childhood classrooms are proving grounds for social learning. It is time-tested how much better children develop social-emotional skills such as self-care, toileting, problem-solving, verbal communication, following instructions, etc. when they do it together with peers. Having gone without that for the better part of a year, I have personally observed children return to the classroom having stagnated in these skills. Most children I know have been able to regain or relearn important social skills over time. However, during that time of catch-up, there is a risk to self-confidence and self-esteem at KNOWING they are not able to do what the other children can. It is in the early childhood years (birth-5 years) that children begin to develop an idea of self-identity, as well as how they relate to others. It is more important to your child’s development to be in preschool WITH a mask on, than to be out of school without one.
- The wearing of masks in preschool does not impede language development. Children are highly intelligent. The most critical time for early childhood language development is the years birth to 3. We already know that babies up through age two will not have to wear masks in our centers. In our toddler, preschool and Pre-K classrooms, our social-emotional curricula (Creative Curriculum and Sanford Harmony) support both verbal and non-verbal (nonviolent) expression and problem-solving. Although we spend time learning to read each other’s faces, we spend much of the time, throughout the day, learning to “use our words,” as you’ve heard the teacher say. The lessons and opportunities are built into everyday experiences and the curriculum calendars, and have been since long before COVID-19. As mentioned before, when it is important to see a teacher’s or peer’s nose and mouth for the sake of communication and learning, masks can be pulled down. NOTE: there are children who, because of documented medical or developmental needs, will require accommodations to preserve learning goals and plans. The Y will continue to pursue guidance from our leaders to make sure those accommodations are met.
The Hunterdon County YMCA will always strive to maintain our level of quality education and care of your children regardless of the temporary adaptations that must be made to keep them, and your family, safer from illness. We are so grateful to have developed close relationships with you and your children, and we are eager to talk through any issue or obstacle that may be in our path of success. No matter what it is, we will work the best we can, and the most we can, to achieve mutual understanding – a high mark of that success.