Masks can mask a smile, muffle a voice, and make lip reading impossible.
But these are minor obstacles to human interaction, says Lindsay Yazzolino, who is blind.
“What interests me is that seeing the face is seen as the be-all and end-all in so many contexts,” she says.
That’s why Yazzolino says she’s intrigued by the current debate over masks in the classroom.
Some parents worry that masks will interfere with children’s ability to learn or socialize. Other parents fear that the unmasking could lead to more cases of COVID-19.
Amid the debate, a small but growing body of research offers clues that masks don’t have a significant impact on speech or social skills.
Some of this research involves people like Yazzolino, who are blind. Their ability to master language and social skills shows that the human brain is really good at finding a way to communicate.
Yazzolino, an accessible technology consultant, has been blind since birth. But she went to school with sighted children.
“I always had a very good experience at school,” she says. “I had a lot of teachers who were really supportive, I was reading very early. I loved math and science.”
She used Braille to read and write. And it was difficult for him to obtain course material in this format.
But social interactions were never a problem, she says.
“You hear the emotion in people’s voices, so I definitely used that as a cue,” she says. “And I talk to people.”
The brain finds a way
Yazzolino’s experiment is not surprising, say the scientists, because the human brain is really good at finding a way to communicate.
“We tend to underestimate the flexibility of our minds and brains,” says Marina Bedniassociate professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies brain development in blind people.
For example, areas of the brain usually devoted to visual information are used to process sounds in people who are blind, Bedny says.
“We also found that blind people have superior abilities to understand spoken sentences,” she says, “perhaps because language is such an important source of information.”
This type of research suggests that when sighted children encounter masks in the classroom, their brains quickly adapt.
“That the person teaching them is wearing a mask is just not something that, to me, would seem to matter to a child’s development,” she says.
However, there is not much research to directly support this claim.
Studies show that children tend to look closely at mouths and faces as they learn to speak and read emotions. But what happens when these visual cues are not available in the classroom is less clear.
Masks in the classroom can encourage more speech
At least one unpublished study found that pandemic masking is not a barrier to learning, even for children as young as 3 or 4 years old.
“We see really similar amounts of speaking, really similar amounts of vocabulary development, language growth, language development, with or without masks, says Lynn Perryassociate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami.
Perry has been part of a team that has been monitoring speech development in preschool students since before COVID-19 arrived. Students wear a device that monitors the speech sounds they produce.
The team compared a class in early 2020, before masks arrived, with a class in 2021, when masks were needed. And they found no difference in the amount of language production.
The team also found that the complexity of speech sounds was higher in children wearing masks.
“Maybe they talk a little more to get their point across,” Perry says. “Maybe teachers change the way they speak to make sure they’re understood.”
About half of the children in the study used hearing aids or cochlear implants. And those kids also did well with masks, says Samantha Mitsven, a doctoral student at the University of Miami.
“These results were particularly encouraging because these hearing-impaired children often benefit from these early education programs,” says Mitsven.
In different contexts, masks pose different challenges
The masks pose a challenge for students who are deaf or hard of hearing who aren’t already fluent in American Sign Language or ASL, says Tyrone Giordano from the Center Clerc of Gallaudet University. The center offers elementary and secondary schools for children who are deaf or have hearing aids or cochlear implants.
Facial expressions and mouth movements are an integral part of signing, and face-covering masks mean the brain has to work harder to process what is being said, especially for those acquiring ASL, Giordano explains, who is deaf.
While Gallaudet University now allows teachers to remove their masks during presentations, the Clerc Center continues to encourage masking to protect vulnerable students. The center allows the use of transparent masks or transparent plastic screens for certain interactions, such as speech therapy or audiology.
But students have adapted to mask requirements in other settings, Giordano says. “They’re hitting their marks, so we’re not worried.”
Despite reassuring reports, the long-term impact of masking in schools remains uncertain, according to Stephane Camarataprofessor of speech and hearing sciences at Vanderbilt University.
“This idea of doing selective face access is really not a well-researched topic at this point,” he says.
Camarata thinks most children will have no long-term effects from masks in classrooms. But he worries about some students with autism who find it difficult to adapt to even small changes in their environment.
“When they walk into the classroom and everything has changed, it’s really disorienting,” Camarata says. The result is often disruptive behavior and a lack of learning.
Another problem for some autistic children has to do with how their brains combine what they see and what they hear.
“Children with autism don’t bind auditory cues like typical children do,” he says.
For many, it’s like watching a movie with the soundtrack out of sync. And the problem is worse when these children are unable to see a teacher’s mouth move.
Even so, Camarata says, for many autistic children, even a classroom with masks is preferable to virtual learning on a computer or tablet screen.
“When you give an autistic child an iPad, they tend to jump into games they love and play them over and over,” he says, “and miss out on other learning opportunities.”