Hanna Saltzman: Let kids be kids. With masks on.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Mary Kendall Hegland walks with her daughters, Brecken and Auburn, their dog Boone, and Layli and Nisha Parisi, in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, June 26, 2020.

“It’s kind-of like a fashion statement,” my adolescent patient said, proudly sporting her pink, floral face covering.

As a pediatric resident physician, I’ve been curious about how children view wearing masks. So, I’ve been asking my patients.

“I mean, I wish I didn’t have to wear it,” she continued. “But it’s way better than sitting around at home all day!”

When the pandemic started, I worried that my new getup might scare my patients. But when I smile — even behind my bulky face-shield, goggles and mask — babies still smile back. Toddlers don’t scream (any more than usual). When school-aged patients are given masks to wear during their appointments, they generally keep them on.

Preparing for the re-opening of schools, Gov. Gary Herbert recently required students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear face coverings in K-12 schools and on school buses. While this decision is far from sufficient for making schools safe, it’s a step in the right direction. The science is clear: Widespread mask-wearing reduces COVID-19 infections.

But anti-mask sentiments run deep in this state. The idea of masked children brings up additional concerns: Masks will remind children that the world is unsafe. Children won’t be able to learn how to wear masks. Masks will keep children from their childhood. As one sign on an anti-mask protest in Provo recently read, “Let kids be kids. No masks!”

I understand wanting children to live carefree and unencumbered. Pediatricians share this perspective. We want all children to feel nurtured, safe and able to embrace the magic of childhood. I can see how masks might seem like an obstruction to that goal, a practical impediment and a symbol of fear, a constant reminder that we are living in a pandemic.

But that’s just it: we are living in a pandemic. Utah’s COVID-19 cases continue to steeply rise, with over 32,000 confirmed total cases as of July 16. And children know that life isn’t normal. They’ve been inundated with stories of the virus.

School-aged kids’ lives have been turned upside down, torn from their friends, education, and activities. Children are experiencing an increased risk of exposure to family violence. The pandemic has infected children with stress.

In this new reality, masks are not what will prevent children from being children. Masks are what will permit children to be children.

When worn widely by both kids and adults, masks will enable children to return to activities that are crucial for their academic and social-emotional learning: school, friends, playtime. Masks can help give children their childhoods back.

Masks worn by children also protect their health — and the health of their caregivers. As children infected by COVID-19 may have no symptoms, they can spread it invisibly to their parents and grandparents. Masks decrease this risk. And although children with COVID-19 often have no symptoms or only mild illness, sometimes they can get very sick and may develop problems such as dehydration.

Furthermore, although rare, even children who initially had only mild symptoms (or none at all) can develop a life-threatening immune system reaction, called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children. These children may need admission to the Intensive Care Unit. They may die.

Almost all children, apart from those under 2 years old or those with rare medical exceptions, can learn to wear masks safely.

For parents and caregivers, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers ideas for how to help kids learn to wear face coverings: Put a mask on a child’s favorite stuffed animal. Choose masks with fun patterns, or decorate them together as an activity. Draw a mask on a beloved book character. Teach mask-wearing as a life skill, like getting dressed and brushing your teeth. And, importantly, model mask-wearing yourself.

Kids can adapt. Can we?

Hanna Saltzman

Hanna Saltzman, M.D., is a pediatric resident physician in Salt Lake City. She can be reached on Twitter, @hannasaltzman .