Mask-wearing for schoolkids is a terrible idea
Anyone who has ever worked in a school knows it just won’t work.
So the government has made yet another u-turn. Compulsory face masks could be a reality for some pupils returning to school in the next few days. Boris Johnson has changed his mind and removed the official advice against face coverings in schools. In a double negative that will make your head spin, it seems the government’s position is now that it will not not insist that masks are necessary in schools.
Just a week ago, the message from the PM was that there is a ‘moral duty’ to get children back into the classroom. But following a few days of handwringing by scared teachers and scaremongering commentators, it turned out that Johnson’s sense of moral duty wasn’t as firm as he wanted us to believe.
Whether or not face masks are a useful means of protection against Covid-19 remains a contested issue. The World Health Organisation (WHO) famously flip-flopped on this question, as have various government ministers and advisers. The logical defence of masks is that they prevent droplets from spreading, but many have pointed out that flimsy material is no real barrier to microscopic viral particles.
For brief encounters, on trains or in shops, it seems reasonable to use a mask as an extra measure of precaution. This could be seen as a worthy sacrifice if it means making individuals who are vulnerable to the virus feel more comfortable about emerging from isolation. But when it comes to a school setting, wearing a mask starts to become pointless.
Anyone who has worked in a school will tell you about the joyous disregard most school pupils have for hygiene – even in their late teens. Best friends share cutlery; they get up close and personal playing football; they sneak sloppy kisses during lunchtime. Even the most vociferous defender of masks will say there is no point donning one unless you are going to wear it properly and resist the temptation to take it on and off. It’s hard enough to get kids to wear their school uniform properly, let alone a mask.
More importantly, masks act as a barrier to social interaction. Imagine children being able to communicate with muffled voices only. It’s ridiculous. How can you whisper secrets or laugh at someone’s joke or sing along to your favourite song if half of your face is hidden? Children have spent the past few months isolated from their peers. Framing their long-awaited return to school around the politics of fear, by teaching them to be wary of breathing on one another, seems pointlessly cruel.
It seems the masks-in-schools debate is not really about protecting children. A series of studies published in the Lancet demonstrated that there is very little evidence of significant transmission of Covid between children or between children and teachers. The idea of children as ‘super spreaders’, which was pushed in the early days of the pandemic, looks to have been false. It is now thought that teachers face a greater risk of transmission in the staff room than they do in the classroom.
And yet despite all this, teaching unions like the NASUWT were still arguing in July that ‘there is a strong argument that face masks should also be made compulsory for children when they return to secondary schools in September’. Scaremongering by unions, government officials and the media means that many teachers remain uncertain about how safe it is to return to schools.
Throughout the pandemic, we have talked a lot about ‘sacrifice’. People sacrificed their daily routines, their holidays and visits to family and friends in order to help prevent the spread of Covid. Pharmacists, cashiers and bus drivers sacrificed their safety in order to carry on working throughout the pandemic. Now, when the virus is in decline, and when the evidence shows that school closures are no longer necessary (if they ever were), it is surely time to ask what sacrifices should be made to get kids back into education.
The government’s mixed messages have added more fear and confusion to the debate around reopening schools. Never mind the kids, it’s time for adults to start acting like adults.
Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.
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