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Do masks hurt speech development? It depends on the child

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School has started in the United States amid the spread of the coronavirus delta variant, which has been rampant in some parts of the country and less so in others. With it comes a renewed focus on mitigation measures such as vaccination for staff and for kids who are eligible, social distancing, and masks.

Ongoing study — which has yet to be peer reviewed — suggests that masks work well to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in adults, for whom the virus can lead to serious disease. But for young children, the tradeoffs are less clear, leading to debate among both experts and the public.

Opponents argue that masks in this age group make very little difference in transmission rates and risk harming children's development — particularly speech. But the potential for harm doesn't always translate into actual harm, other experts point out, making safety concerns like contracting Covid-19 paramount. The disagreement is intensified by the discrepancy in recommendations from major public health agencies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says to mask kids aged 2 and up indoors, while the World Health Organization recommends against masking kids five and under and says that the decision to use masks for kids six to 11 be made in consideration of various factors including local transmission rates and the "potential impact of wearing a mask on learning and psychosocial development."

Some critics have played these guidelines against each other, but the advice is better understood as slightly different interpretations of the same underlying data, according to scientists who have advised the WHO on masking and are familiar with the CDC.

Although the speech pathology experts Undark interviewed were reluctant to definitively rule out any possibility of masks' effect on kids' speech, they all stressed that it isn't likely to be a long-term problem for normally developing children. But widespread masking in preschools and childcare centers may cause difficulties for children who already have speech problems or other conditions that affect communication.

"Many children in the two-to-five age range can wear a mask quite well," said Daniele Lantagne, a public health engineer at Tufts University who has worked at the CDC on public health interventions in the past and is also an adviser to the WHO on Covid-19 mask guidance.

"We need exemptions for those kids where they have speech needs or special needs," she added.

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Most normally developing children begin to talk during their first two years of life — and no medical experts recommend masks for children who are this young.

"Once the kids are above age two, there's no concern about a mask interfering with their........

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