The Peninsula's littlest ones will be taking off their masks as soon as next week at some area child care centers, but others are holding off on aligning with new state guidelines that make masks indoors optional, even as the San Mateo County Health Department said it plans to follow the guidance.
School districts in Portola Valley, Woodside, Mountain View and Palo Alto will drop their mask mandates come March 12 (masks will still be strongly recommended). Up until next week, early learning centers have required children over 2 wear masks during the pandemic.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that he would lift the requirement to wear a face mask inside schools or child care facilities at the end of the day on Friday, March 11. A representative from the Community Care Licensing Division Child Care, the state's early learning programs oversight group, said updated COVID-19 guidance for child care programs will be available soon.
Parents of children under 5 who attend preschools and day cares are in a unique position. A vaccine has yet to be approved for kids in that age group.
Educators wonder how they'll explain to children whose parents continue to want them to wear masks why some of their classmates don't have to.
Dropping mask mandates
The director of Building Kidz of Mountain View, which operates a franchise serving infants through kindergartners, anticipates dropping its mask mandate for its students and teachers come March 12.
Parents can decide whether they want their kids to go mask-free, said Director Ebun Evien, but the school will require teachers to be fully vaccinated and boosted before peeling off their masks.
She said parents are divided about whether they want their kids to lose their masks.
"Some of them are tired of it; they say it makes their kid look sick and puts them in a frightened mood," she said. "Two years is more than enough. Most of the parents want to see the faces of teachers and most of the kids want to see their faces again."
She also hopes to drop temperature checks. Building Kidz currently check people's temperatures at the entrance of the school and every two hours in classrooms.
'Tricky' situation for toddlers
At Woodside Preschool on the Woodside Elementary School District campus, masks will come off on March 14.
Preschool Supervisor Lisa Dayeh said parents of the 37 children who attend her program can opt to have their kids continue to mask. Dayeh noted that some children have had difficulty understanding emotional cues with masks on. She recounted a time she backed up and slipped down her mask to help a child understand she wasn't angry with them.
"It's tricky when you look to the face to catch social cues, but it really has kept us healthy," she said, noting the preschool has seen COVID-19 cases but there hasn't been transmission of the virus in her classrooms. Other types of illnesses have also been kept at bay, since toddlers put their hands in their mouths a lot more before masking, she said.
Dayeh noted that it could be difficult for some children whose parents ask the school to continue to have them mask to understand why their peers can go maskless.
"It's tricky when you're 3 and all your friends have their mask off," she said. "They're used to wearing it all day. Any time you change the routine for the little ones there's a bit of a learning curve."
Although the evidence is clear that masks don't impair kids' ability to breathe, it's less evident how masking affects emotional development, according to a report from National Geographic. Though some studies show preschoolers are less able to identify emotions when interacting with people with masks on, the studies don't take into account hand gestures and tone of voice, Dr. Theresa Guilbert, a pediatric pulmonologist, told National Geographic. There's no sign that masking stifles children's social development, but remote learning certainly caused them more anxiety and depression, she noted.
Keeping masks on for now
Like some elementary and high school districts in the area, Windmill School in Portola Valley, which serves 108 2- to 5-year-olds, has yet decide if it will lift its mask mandate for students and teachers yet. The school's board of directors and faculty are still in discussions about the mandate, according to Executive Director Jodi Cocconi.
Masks will remain on at the Early Learning Center (ELC), which has two centers located on Menlo Park City School District campuses in Atherton and Menlo Park.
In an email to families on March 3, Director Jessica Mihaly said she spoke with staff and other preschools in the county and she decided that, for the time being, ELC students and staff will continue to wear their masks.
The school will allow fully vaccinated teachers to remove their masks for short periods of time when it will help them communicate more clearly with children. For example, they may remove their masks while reading a story or in focused language development lessons during circle times, according to the note.
"In addition to the data supporting continued masking, our experience continues to demonstrate that children are not troubled by their masks, as they have become a normal part of their school routine," Mihaly told parents.
Mountain View Parent Nursery School in Los Altos isn't dropping its mask mandate since most of its children are under 5 years old and aren't eligible for vaccines to protect themselves against COVID-19, said Claire Koukoutsakis, director of 3- and 4-year-olds, in an email.
All Five, which offers infant and preschool programs in Menlo Park, will continue to require teachers and children to wear masks, also due to the lack of availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, Carol Thomsen, its founder and executive director, said in an email.
Teachers at Knox Playschool in Atherton will be keeping their masks on, but parents may let teachers know if they'd like their children to continue wearing a mask after March 11, said owner Susan Knox in an email.
Parents will not be required to wear a mask to drop off and pick up their child as long as they stay outside the gates and maintain a bit of distance from the teachers, she said.
"We will still be staying in our classroom 'pods' indoors and out for the time being," she said. "We are hoping to soon get to the point where we do not need to close a classroom for a COVID exposure, just issue an exposure notice."