It's Going to be Weird, Right?

Kids, day care, camp and masks. Also, a story about my inability to spell.

As we all contemplate the possibility of sending children back to day care, or to camp, or eventually to school, a number of parents have written to ask some version of: “It’s going to be weird, right?”

The most specific question people have is about day care and masks. Is it going to mess up your child’s development to be around a bunch of people in masks all day? Isn’t it odd not to see people’s mouths?

But this extends to a wide variety of questions.

My kid’s day care says the kids over 3 have to wear masks? How will this even work?

Soccer camp is opening, but they can’t play big games. Isn’t that going to be odd?

School says if they come back the desks will be far apart and the classrooms will be “dedensified”. Huh? Did they make that word up?

(To the last question: yes, I think so, but as someone responsible for planning the reopening of a higher education institution, I can assure you this will not be the first or last time you hear the word “dedensificaton”. )

Basically, it’s all going to be weird. And the question is: is this a problem? I don’t have any great answers here, but I thought some perspective would be useful.

Regulations versus Reality

Let’s start with a level check. States and cities are going to write all kinds of COVID-19 related regulations, like requiring masks for all child care workers, saying that kids shouldn’t interact at recess, etc, etc, etc. States write a lot of rules like this in non-COVID-19 times. Providers are going to aim to adhere to them, and there will be some oversight (probably more now than in typical times). But there is likely to be some slippage. Things will inevitably look more “normal” than the stylized pictures that your state has posted on their re-open site.

Second, I think we will learn over time which of these regulations are realistic, which matter and how those interact. To give a concrete example. In a day care with young children, where kids touch everything and adults are (among other things) changing diapers, it seems extremely unlikely that having children wear masks will matter at all. Also, it is very hard to get young children to wear masks. It will result in them touching their faces a lot. This actually might make viral spread worse. Together, this will mean I think we’ll learn that this is a waste of time. Although regulations may start with this rule, I do not think it is likely to persist in practice.

On the other hand, some rules are likely to be easier to implement and much more important. To continue with the day care example: not sending your child to school sick is likely to matter a lot. If child care settings (day care, camp or school) can really stick to keeping sick kids out, this will impact viral spread. Yes, people can be asymptomatic, but those with symptoms tend to spread the virus more. Both parents and providers are going to need to be vigilant. I know that sometimes in the pre-COVID era one might be tempted to react to a kid with a fever of 100.2 (IT’s NOT OVER THE 100.4 LIMIT) by dosing them with Advil and sending them off. We cannot do this anymore.

I think we will learn this limit on sick kids and teachers is very important to keeping the virus at bay, but it’s also something which actually doesn’t really change the day to day experience. Going to school with kids who have borderline fever level is not a key element of child development.

All this is to say: there will be changes, but if you are imagining your child’s day care is going to be some dystopian 1984 style orphanage setting, that’s probably not right.

But Seriously, Will Masks Affect their Development?

This question has come up a lot in the case of day care and masks. Don’t babies need to see faces? Won’t toddlers be freaked out? What does the data say?

Like with much in the grand COVID-19 experiment, there is much that is unknown here. There is no precedent for a widespread switch to mask usage among day care providers. It is certainly true that some kids are afraid of masks (and beards and other face stuff). There are a few articles in the literature on, for example, perceptions that kids do not like seeing health care workers in hospitals in masks. But this is hardly relevant: surgical masks may well be scary to hospitalized kids due to the surrounding circumstances. And the fact that your kid freaked out at the trick-or-treater with the werewolf mask…again, not quite the same.

The real fear people seem to have is that somehow seeing the mouth is really central to learning about emotions. And there is some good news here. Americans are really into the mouth. But East Asian cultures are more into the eyes as indicating emotions (perhaps this is a result of higher mask usage in normal times, or maybe the causality goes the other way, but who knows). And there is actually some evidence that people in East Asian cultures are relatively more responsive to eye cues for happiness or sadness than mouth cues.

So, the upshot of all this may be that your kid will learn to read eye cues better than mouth cues. But there is really nothing wrong with that.

Adaptation

All of these questions — these worries — they all come down to basically a fear about things being different. And they will be. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be worse.

When I teach microeconomics, one of the main topics is indifference curves and budget sets. To illustrate this, I often talk about someone evaluating a move to a new place and thinking about whether they will be less happy. Let’s say you are considering moving from NY City to (rural) Hanover, New Hampshire. One way you could think about this is to say “Hey, I really love the Museum of Natural History. Let me compare this to the natural history museums in New Hampshire.” Or, “I’m really into Momofuku Noodle Bar. How good are the noodle bars in Hanover?”

If you do this, you’ll conclude that you will be a lot less happy in Hanover. I’m sure they have great noodles, but it’s not Momofuku.

BUT: there are all kinds of things you can have in Hanover that you cannot have in NY. Like a horse. Also, easy access to hiking. Also, a ski mountain more or less in your backyard. In the language of economics, we say that “your budget set has changed” and the result is that your optimal consumption bundle is different. Basically, your happiest life in New Hampshire probably involves hiking and skiing and growing a vegetable garden, not going to Momofuku.

But it is possible you can be equally happy in the two places! And the reason is that you adapt to changing circumstances by changing what you do.

When we think about moving to a “new normal” with masks and dedensified classrooms and all the rest, it is easy to think about what is lost. And, to be fair, it probably will not be as good if our kids have to go to school only half the days in the fall. But we will adapt to many of these changes, and because of that they are not likely to feel anywhere near as bad as you fear. If your kid is only in school 8 to 12 in the fall, there will be some nice things about the afternoon. It is hard to see now, but that’s how adaptation is.

Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, who I adore (in addition to being the governor she is also my neighbor and didn’t get mad when one of our tree limbs crushed her fence) has been talking a lot about the “new normal”. I like this phrase, since it accurately implies what is true. It will be new. But, it will start to feel normal.

I Can’t Spell! A Story

I have gotten a lot of lovely messages from people asking if I want someone to edit my newsletter before I send it out because I make a lot of typos and spelling mistakes. This is incredibly nice! I have not taken anyone up on it because I feel like it would impose upon them. But if you wrote to me about this, thank you! I really appreciate the offer.

None of this is surprising, as I am a notoriously bad speller. You might think that it is embarrassing to send a newsletter with spelling mistakes to thousands of people, but I assure you it pales in comparison to my worst bad spelling experience, which I will now relate.

For high school, I went to a boarding school which, like all schools of its type, had a “Board of Trustees” made up primarily of alums, parents and big-ticket donors who visited campus a couple of times a year to observe and make some large decisions.

I was one of the newspaper editors, and happened to have responsibility for writing front page headlines. Obviously, the newspaper editing program had a spellcheck. Crucially, however, this spellcheck did not extend to the headlines. On the day of the trustee visit, I wrote the headline: “Trustees Decend on Campus.” Substack has helpfully underlined the word “Decend” to remind me it should be “Descend.” The newspaper headline program did not do this and, as I was the person to push the go button on the printing, the error remained. It remained in GIANT LETTERS all over campus. For days.

I will be completely honest: ‘decend’ looks totally fine to me. This is part of my problem. However, many people at my school, including the trustees, one of whom was my mom, were aware of how to spell the word “Descend.” Twenty-three years later, I am still cringing about this.


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