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Some day cares embrace mask mandate; others say it's a challenge for young children

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Daycare masks Rainbow's End

Children enrolled in the Pre-K program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Rainbow's End Child Development Center play at an indoor sand table while wearing face masks. A recent executive order by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has mandated face coverings for children ages 3 and over who attend day care centers.

Governor J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate announced last week also reaches some young enough to not even be in school yet: Those as young as age 2 attending day cares.

The statewide mandate, issued by the governor on Aug. 4, requires face coverings for all school children from preschool through 12th grade. The Department of Children and Family Services' is also applying the mandate to all licensed day cares.

Facilities must "require the indoor use of face coverings by children, staff and visitors who are two and older and able to medically tolerate a face covering, regardless of their vaccination status, consistent with CDC guidance," according to DCFS documents. 

'Doing our best'

The requirement is challenging, according to some Southern Illinois child care providers.

“We’re doing our best to incorporate the masks with all of our children,” explained Jena Parson, director of Robin’s Nest Learning Center in Marion. “It’s just kind of hit-and-miss as we are doing everything we can to keep the masks on them. It is much easier with school-aged children.”

Parson said for many preschool children, face coverings can inhibit learning.

“The biggest challenge is our youth not being able to see their friends’ faces and for us not being able to understand what they are saying. It’s very difficult to understand what an adult is saying when they have a mask on, let alone a 3-year-old,” she said.

Little is definitively known about the pandemic's long-term impacts on children's social skills and speech development, but Elizabeth Norton, a professor at Northwestern University, and her colleagues are studying the topic. 

Parson added many children do not like the feel of the masks on their faces and also fail to understand why they need to wear one.

“We’re having talks with our kids; telling them why the masks have to be in place and about respecting authority,” Parson said. “We’re doing our best to make sure we’re staying safe.”

Keeping everyone safe 

The daily lives of children at SIU's Rainbow’s End Child Development Center in Carbondale have hardly changed with the newly announced mask mandate — they have been wearing face masks since the facility re-opened several months ago, when the state entered Phase 4 of the Recover Illinois coronavirus response plan. 

“The children have done really, really well,” said center Director Karen Samuel. “Sometimes keeping track of them is tough, but they haven’t resisted wearing them.”

Samuel said staff members have not have any issues getting students to wear their masks during required times when children are not eating, napping or playing outside.

She said Rainbow’s End continued with masks in an effort to keep everyone safe.

“We never stopped because we knew kids can’t be vaccinated and we want to try to follow as much of the DCFS recommendations as we can,” she said.

Eager for normalcy

Prior to the mandate, face masks were optional at Malone’s Early Learning Center in Carterville. Director Lee Elkund said the center left decisions about masking up to parents.

“It was very hard for the staff when it was mandated,” he said referring to problems with understanding children's speech while they wore masks. He added about 20% of the 115 students at the center were regularly wearing masks.

Eklund said Malone’s does daily temperature checks with staff and follows other cleaning and prevention guidelines.

Robin’s Nest’s Parson said she is eager for the day that masks are no longer required.

“I’m ready for all of this to go away because it’s not fun to teach children with a mask on, especially when they can’t see my lips and hear me well. I want to be more concerned with their learning than with masks,” she said.

The latest numbers show COVID cases have climbed to six-month high in the U.S. The seven-day average of new cases is nearing 95,000. The delta variant has driven cases up nearly five times compared to a month ago. The Biden administration said seven states Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi make up about half of the country's cases and hospitalizations in the last week. Those states have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S. and highest levels of community transmission.

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