Editorials

Should masks really be mandatory in schools?

7 January 2022

By Jasmine Sillence

The Department for Education announced on 1 January that masks will be mandatory in classrooms for secondary school students. While people were expecting new rules after the Christmas break, many are angry about this new measure, and perhaps rightly so.

While mask-wearing is something we’ve all had to get used to over the last two years – either on public transport, in shops or school corridors, it is something people certainly don’t look forward to. And while the Education Secretary has tried to reassure the public by promising a review of this classroom-based measure on 26 January, it puts students, parents and teachers in a frustrating position once again.

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Teachers across the country face a constant battle between balancing teaching and their new job: enforcing covid measures. Where some areas of life are heading towards a new normal, it seems unlikely that schools will be afforded this luxury any time soon.

Parents are also expected to enforce mask wearing in classrooms, but their power is also limited. For those who go into work, where they don’t have to wear a face covering, it can be hard to justify to teenagers, already fed up with masks making their lives difficult, why they need to wear one in class.

There have been many messages about masks and when to wear them, and these messages have changed over the course of the pandemic. What seems like mixed messaging begins to sow seeds of doubt, and people begin to question whether masks are effective.

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Wearing a mask is not fun for anyone, but in schools, where many have campaigned for the reinstatement of face-to-face teaching in the hope of getting children’s education and mental health back on track, a face mask is far more than a discomfort.

Wearing a mask can make social interaction more challenging and even quite awkward.

It’s more difficult to ask questions and for teachers to hear the answers. Many have it tougher, such as those who wear glasses or hijabs, and those who wear hearing aids. This all adds to the general level of stress in the classroom, and surely isn’t the position people were hoping schools would be in this time last year.

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Masks of course have to be considered within the context of wider Covid measures, including vaccinations. From personal experience however, getting my vaccination wasn’t straightforward.

I would have been happy to have my jab at school, but delays and changes to the roll out meant I eventually had to try and book a jab at a large vaccination centre. Vaccination rates in my age group, under 18s, are still hovering around the 50% mark and the testing rate prior to the Christmas break was low among students.

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The appetite for more restrictions seems to be diminishing, but so does the appetite for positive interventions, with the government only offering to provide 7,000 air-cleaning units to schools.

All of this seems particularly unfair for staff and students, who are expected to carry on delivering and receiving lessons as if it were any normal year.

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