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Experts weigh in: Do masks interfere with a child's ability to learn or socialize?


Parents are divided on the issue of masks in schools. Some raise the concern that masks might interfere with their kid's ability to learn or socialize. So NPR's Jon Hamilton asked some experts what they think.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Masks can cover up a smile and make it impossible to read lips. But Lindsay Yazzolino says those are minor obstacles to human interaction.

LINDSAY YAZZOLINO: It's interesting to me how face seeing is, like, considered to be the be-all and end-all in so many contexts.

HAMILTON: Yazzolino has never seen a face. She's blind and grew up around sighted kids.

YAZZOLINO: I always had a really great experience in school. I had a lot of really supportive teachers. I was reading at an early age. I loved math and science.

HAMILTON: Yazzolino, who is now an accessible technology consultant, says it was hard to find some advanced math books written in braille, but social interactions were no problem.

YAZZOLINO: You hear the emotion in people's voices, so I definitely use that as a cue and I talk to people.

HAMILTON: Scientists say Yazzolino's experience is unsurprising because humans are really good at finding a way to communicate.

MARINA BEDNY: We tend to underestimate how flexible our mind and our brain is.

HAMILTON: Marina Bedny of Johns Hopkins University studies brain development in people who are blind. Bedny says when a child can't see, areas of the brain usually devoted to visual information are used to process sounds.

BEDNY: We've also found that people who are blind have some superior abilities at understanding spoken sentences - right? - perhaps because language is such an important source of information.

HAMILTON: So Bedny thinks most sighted children have just adapted to teachers in masks.

BEDNY: Whether the person who is teaching them and being nice to them and providing them with care is wearing a mask or not is just not something that would, to me, seem like it would matter at all for a child's development.

HAMILTON: There's not much research to confirm that, but at least one unpublished study backs the idea. Lynn Perry of the University of Miami is part of a team that has been monitoring speech development in two preschool classes since before masks arrived.

LYNN PERRY: We're seeing really similar amounts of talking, really similar amounts of vocabulary development, language growth with or without masks.

HAMILTON: Perry says, students wear a device that monitors what they say, and the team found that after masks arrived, children began producing speech sounds that were more complex.

PERRY: Maybe they talk a little bit more to get their meaning across. Maybe the teachers change the way that they're talking to make sure that they're being understood.

HAMILTON: About half the children in the study use hearing aids or cochlear implants, and Samantha Mitsven, a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami, says those kids also did fine.

SAMANTHA MITSVEN: These results were particularly encouraging because these children with hearing loss often benefit from being enrolled in these early education programs.

HAMILTON: Masks do pose a challenge for deaf students who are still learning American Sign Language or ASL, says Tyrone Giordano of the Clerc Center at Gallaudet University. The center offers elementary and secondary schools for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Giordano, who is deaf, says facial expressions and mouth movements are an integral part of signing. So masks make a person's brain work harder. Even so, the Clerc Center continues to encourage mask wearing, though it allows clear masks or face shields for some interactions, like speech therapy. And Giordano says students have adapted. They're reaching their benchmarks, he says, so we're not worried. Steven Camarata of Vanderbilt University says the long-term impact of classroom masking remains unclear.

STEVE CAMARATA: This idea of, you know, doing selective access to faces just is not really a well-researched topic at this point.

HAMILTON: Camarata thinks most children won't have any long-term effects, but he's concerned about some students with autism.

CAMARATA: When they go in the classroom and everything's changed, it's just really disorienting.

HAMILTON: They're disturbed when they encounter a roomful of people in masks. Camarata says another challenge is that autism affects the way some children combine what they see and what they hear.

CAMARATA: Children with autism actually do not bind auditory and visual signals in the same way that typical children do.

HAMILTON: It's like a movie soundtrack that's out of sync, and it's worse if they can't see a speaker's mouth. But Camarata says in-person learning with masks is still usually a better option than virtual learning.

CAMARATA: When you give a child with autism an iPad, they just tend to get into games that they like and do them over and over again.

HAMILTON: Which isn't school at all.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.