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Debate swirls after NY governor issues mask mandate for children over age 2

Some express concerns about getting such young kids to wear masks. Here are tips on how to make it work.
/ Source: TODAY

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul expanded the state's mask mandate on Wednesday to include children ages 2 and up in child care and day care centers. Staff and visitors at these facilities also must be masked.

Other states have issued rules around young children wearing masks: Many school districts require masks be worn in classrooms. In Washington state, children over the age of 5 must be masked, and in Virginia, adults working in child care facilities must mask up.

The rules come amid a surge in the coronavirus that has been largely driven by the delta variant, a more contagious version of the disease. The delta variant also has led to a "surge" of pediatric cases, according to doctors. Right now, children under the age of 12 can't be vaccinated, though it is possible that a vaccine for younger kids will be available sometime in the coming months.

The battles over mask-wearing have been divisive, especially when children are involved. Schools have dealt with disputes and aggression from parents. In Texas, an American Airlines passenger claimed this week that she was kicked off a flight because her 2-year-old son would not wear a mask during an asthma attack; the airline told TODAY that the mother and son were deplaned due to refusal "to comply with crew member instructions to remain seated while on an active taxiway and to wear face coverings securely over their nose and mouth."

Misinformation about the risks of mask-wearing for children has proliferated online, with some claiming that it affects breathing or has a severe impact on child development.

Meghan Fitzgerald, the co-founder and chief learning officer of the outdoor play company Tinkergarten Inc., told TODAY Parents there is no reason to believe masks make a significant impact on child development. Fitzgerald cited a recent study that looked at the development of 600 children during the coronavirus pandemic. The study did not single out masks, but focused on all changes brought on by the pandemic.

"I think what people get really worried about is that kids are going to be somehow frustrated or traumatized (by) the physical experience of wearing a mask, or they'll be frightened by someone else wearing a mask," Fitzgerald said. "That just is not bearing out at all."

Fitzgerald said the only thing she would be concerned about would be some difficulty for children in understanding emotions and facial expressions, which are a "big part of early learning" and could be impeded by mask-wearing. However, she said that concern must be balanced against the risk of contracting COVID-19 or having child care facilities shut down due to virus outbreaks.

"(Wearing a mask) isn't ideal for early learners, but when you balance that against the chance to get together with other kids and learn in a social environment ... those benefits seem more primary," Fitzgerald said. "It's much better to have kids wear masks, even little ones, and get those other benefits in being able to get together."

How can I encourage my child to wear a mask?

Fitzgerald said that one of the best things adults can do to encourage mask-wearing in young children is model the behavior they want to see from their kids.

"Kids just follow our lead," Fitzgerald said.

It's also important to make children feel like they have control over the situation, so try letting them pick out their own masks or purchasing a customizable mask that they can decorate themselves.

"Have them make it and decorate it," Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and child development expert, suggested to TODAY last spring. "It was the same thing with bike helmets when we first started requiring kids wear them. Lots of parents said, 'They don't like how they look, they're not comfortable, they're not cool, my kid won't do it.' ... We said the same things. Can they pick out their bike helmet, can they decorate it, can they pick the color? If you can give your kid some autonomy about it, not about when or where but about what, that might help."

Fitzgerald said parents also should be "really thoughtful about the material and fit" of the mask, especially if their child has a sensitive sensory system and will be bothered by the cloth on their face.

"Have them try different masks to see which one they like best," Fitzgerald said. "And give them choice, because that choice tends to make us want to do things. Even if it's just random, say you pick two different masks and ask, 'Which one do you like best?' that choice puts them in a little bit more control over the mask-wearing and tends to lead to more willingness to get in the mask game."

It's also important to make sure that your child gets a break from wearing masks: It's generally safe to be unmasked outside, Fitzgerald said. However, having your child wear a mask regularly and changing activities to incorporate mask-wearing can help them build resiliency.

"This is a moment where we can teach kids how to manage and adjust to reality, which long-term is probably the most important thing our kids can learn, because the world is just going to keep throwing stuff at us and them," Fitzgerald said.

If your child is really resistant to wearing a mask, Gilboa recommends acting the same way you would with any other outfit choice.

"Treat it exactly the same way you treated them wearing pants when they didn't want to," Gilboa said. "'Sorry, sweetie, it's a rule. You can't go outside without pants. Now, because of what's going on, you can't go out without wearing a mask.' ... I can have empathy for the fact that they don't like it, but that doesn't change the rules."

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