Dr. Lee agreed. “I believe children are very, very smart,” he said. “They can figure out who a person is by using information still available to them, the shape of the eyes, the eyebrows, voice, posture.” Children will adapt quickly, he said, but teachers who are wearing masks should help them along by wearing the same eyeglasses, the same hairstyle, or perhaps by wearing personalized masks, or even characteristic clothing.
As far as emotional communication, he suggested that teachers emphasize their gestures, and pay attention to their tones of voice. “Make your voice more expressive, your gesture more expressive, your eyes more expressive,” he said. And finally, he said, “I would slow down my speech as a teacher, particularly when interacting with younger ones, so kids can pick up more from the auditory channel.”
There is no evidence, Dr. Chen said, that children from cultures with much more extensive face covering are any worse at recognizing faces or emotions.
In Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, it’s standard to wear masks as protection against illness or air pollution. Because there are always a fair number of people wearing masks in public, “culturally, there is not the same level of anxiety — not the urgency to see whether wearing masks interferes with children’s development that we have heard from European colleagues and American colleagues,” Dr. Chen said. People understand, she said, that children will see the full faces of parents and siblings at home.
And given the adaptability of children’s brains, it seems reasonable to hope that one effect of spending time masked and around masked people may be that children actually improve their ability to read those other cues. Children may end up “more sensitive to tones, more sensitive to someone’s overall body language,” Dr. Chen said.
“Kids are very, very adaptive, more adaptive than we are — they learn very quickly,” Dr. Lee said. “I don’t think parents should be too worried.”
Dr. Perri Klass is the author of the forthcoming book “A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future,” on how our world has been transformed by the radical decline of infant and child mortality.