Many local students will be required — or at least encouraged — to add masks to their daily routines when they return to school this fall.

And with the first day of classes just weeks away for some districts, the time to start preparing children to wear face coverings at school is now, local officials say.

“If we can practice that ahead of time, that’s going to help students shift their focus from (personal protective equipment) to reading and writing,” said Tim Vincent, superintendent of the Galena, Ill., school district.

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Local school leaders and health professionals say there are steps families can take to get children ready to wear masks for extended periods of time during the school day. That way, students can feel comfortable as they head back to school and focus on learning.

School officials and health care workers also emphasized that the use of face coverings is key to helping reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“I would emphasize (to children) that we all have to do a small part in order to help prevent the spread of this infection, and wearing masks, washing hands, socially distancing, is a part of that, and that will allow us to stay in school,” said John Callahan, a pediatrician at Medical Associates.

Practicing for school

One key piece of advice schools and health professionals offered is to have children practice wearing masks at home and out in the community.

Allie White, health services coordinator for Dubuque Community Schools, suggested starting with small, five- to 10-minute periods while out at the store or running errands. Then work your way up from there.

“We do understand the school day is a long day,” White said. “It’s a long time for an adult to wear a mask. It’s going to be a long time for children to wear them. ... We’re working to increase that tolerance.”

She noted that students will have breaks to take off their masks at times, when they are physically distanced from one another.

She also suggested giving students masks with fun colors or patterns so they feel special putting them on, and to let children see themselves wearing a mask in the mirror so they feel comfortable in it. The Dubuque district also will provide every student with two masks, White said.

Pat Lehmkuhl, an infection preventionist at UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital, suggested that parents wear masks around their children so they are used to seeing adults in masks — as will be the case when they start school.

Families also can teach children how to properly take their masks off. Lehmkuhl recommended removing masks by the ear loops so you don’t touch the front, then fold the mask in half with the outside facing in. Children should wash their hands before and after touching their masks, she said.

“I think it’s getting them comfortable with (face coverings) so they know what they feel like when they’re wearing them,” Lehmkuhl said.

Doug Varley, principal of Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School of Dubuque, said Holy Family Catholic Schools’ decision to require students and staff to wear masks will help normalize the practice for students.

“When they see that everybody else is doing it, too, it’s very normal, so that takes the stigma away from it,” Varley said.

Keeping one another safe

Callahan said the use of masks is one key tool to allow children to attend school in person this fall.

Wearing masks helps prevent people who have COVID-19 and may not know it from spreading respiratory droplets through which the virus can be transmitted. Masks may offer a small amount of protection for the wearer, but when a critical mass of the population is wearing a mask, it will help decrease the rate of transmission, Callahan said.

“If our primary goal is to have children in person, in the classroom, the benefits of wearing the masks and allowing that to happen far outweigh the potential downsides and the risks that we would run to have to shut down schools if there’s uncontrolled outbreaks within them,” he said.

He said there are “very few, if any” medical reasons why children should not be wearing masks. Students with severe pulmonary or cardiac diseases or complications that would prevent mask-wearing would need to consider whether it is safe for them to be in school.

“The vast, vast majority of children are going to do just fine wearing masks, from a medical perspective,” Callahan said.

He also said there is no evidence that wearing masks carries risks such as decreasing a person’s oxygen levels, forcing them to maintain carbon dioxide levels or increasing their chances of inhaling viral particles.

“Those are all concerns that I have heard voiced that have no scientific merit,” Callahan said.

White suggested families talk to their children in simple terms about wearing masks to keep one another healthy.

“I think simple terms are key,” White said. “There’s a virus in our community. One way we can keep ourselves and each other safe and healthy is to wear our mask because it keeps our germs from spreading.”