How Mask-Wearing to Prevent Spread of COVID-19 Impacts Children in Speech Therapy

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

In a March 2022 Atlantic article, Stephanie Murray discussed how mask mandates have impacted children with speech or language disorders. When the pandemic began in March 2020, many speech pathologists pivoted to teletherapy, which, while useful to slow the spread of a deadly virus, was not always as constructive for little kids. Additionally, many parents’ new work-from-home routine prevented them from being able to facilitate the weekly virtual appointments.

“He would just completely disengage, lie on the floor, start playing with the toys, literally turn his back to the computer, try to close it,” said mother Julia Toof of her son, who, at the time, was just shy of 3-years-old. “It just didn’t work.”

Parents of children with speech or language disorders agree this pandemic poses a classic catch-22. Experts say delaying therapy early in a child’s development can lead to long-term behavioral and social obstacles but going maskless may leave their child, and others, vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

While transitioning back to in-person sessions, speech pathologists realized just how difficult it was for both them and the children to wear masks and still achieve the goals of traditional speech therapy. Face shields and clear-paneled masks, which allow the speaker’s mouth movements to remain visible, were not always provided to therapists in schools or therapy practices. When accessible, therapists utilized these tools along with demonstration videos to make their in-person sessions as safe and helpful as possible, but these workarounds often posed additional challenges. Tactile cues, such as straws and tongue depressors that help with proper tongue placement or bite plates to maintain jaw alignment, are simply impossible to recreate in a COVID-safe manner.

“There is just a lot of interference on so many levels that I think there are certainly kids whose care was impacted negatively and whose progress probably was slowed,” said Alex Levine, a speech-language pathologist at the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute.

At the onset of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) granted mask exemptions to children with certain qualifying disabilities. However, children with speech and language disorders did not meet those requirements.

The debate over requiring children to wear masks has been a common topic in mainstream media since the beginning of the pandemic, but most articles focus on staunch, politically-charged anti-masking, rather than parents’ general curiosity about possible solutions to a relatively new problem. In September 2020, the Washington Post covered the potential for developmental delays in children due to mask mandates but emphasized that risks associated with contracting COVID-19 outweigh any other concerns. The Post published a similar article in March 2022 but did not provide information on children with preexisting conditions. In January 2022, Anya Kamenetz reported for NPR on school mask mandates and how such mandates may inhibit students’ social, emotional, and cognitive development. As of April 2022, no outlet outside of The Atlantic appears to have focused on the impact mask-wearing has had on children undergoing speech therapy.

Source: Stephanie H Murray, “Speech Therapy Shows the Difficult Trade-Offs of Wearing Masks,” The Atlantic, March 2, 2022.

Student Researchers: Alexander Moore, Emily Kenyon, Kathleen Boulton, and Ryan Shea (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)