Unclear face mask guidance from the Education Secretary has left London parents and teachers concerned about the re-opening of schools next week.
It was suggested that masks would be compulsory for students, but on Wednesday it emerged that that would not be the case, although Gavin Williamson did say masks were advised in secondary schools.
The wearing of face masks in schools is as such unenforceable, and some teachers fear that not all parents will agree to COVID tests for their children.
London based secondary school teacher Chris Wyartt said: “Anyone who has worn a mask for a prolonged period of time would know how uncomfortable it can be.
“For some kids, it will be almost impossible for them to adhere to the guidelines, especially those with special needs.
“Gavin Williamson should spend some time in a room with 30 maskless children or face the reality that his guidance is insufficient to protect the lives of teachers.”
Kirsty Logan, a 23-year-old London-based secondary school teacher added: “Obviously masks are a necessary precaution, but they increase the difficulty of communication and can cause sensory overload for some students, and this has to be considered.
“It will be difficult to monitor, and given that they are not compulsory this will cause even more disruption and arguments between students and teachers.”
Schools in England have been closed since the end of 2020 after it was announced they would remain closed from the 5th January 2021, but they are now scheduled to reopen from Monday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdown roadmap outlined that from 12th April, children’s activities and indoor parent and children groups could meet in groups of up to 15 parents, which is still a stark contrast from the numbers that will be mixing in schools.
Logan said: “Despite the difficulties faced by my students, which have realistically left them a year behind their higher-income peers who have greater accessibility, I am still concerned about the return.
“From late October to December, COVID-19 spread throughout my school and despite sharp action by the senior leadership team and the health and safety team, it was hard to control.”
Katie, a mother-of-one from south London, said: “I worry the mask requirement is a sign that it isn’t yet safe for secondary school pupils to go back to school. We now know teenagers transmit the virus more than younger children do.
“Since teenage pupils are better at studying independently than younger children, I would prefer only critical years to return first, with non-critical years studying at home just a few weeks longer.”
Top scientists have since warned against making primary school children wear masks, and Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the cross-party education committee, has warned of the ‘mass anarchy’ Williamson’s lack of clarity could cause.
Colliers’ Wood based mother of two primary school children Daniela said: “When I used to take my daughters on the tube, they would wear masks, they have been used to putting a mask on. Wearing the mask all day would be quite tough though.”
Confusion around school guidelines back in January of this year saw that schools in 10 London boroughs could have stayed open whilst London was in strict Tier 4 restrictions.
The most recent COVID data shows a slump in London cases, with less than 6,000 new cases across the UK reported on 1st March, but given the tentative reopening of the nation over the next few months, why are schools able to open much sooner?
Young people’s mental health charity YoungMinds conducted a survey in January 2021 which found that 75% of respondents agreed that the 2021 lockdown had been even harder to cope with than the previous ones.
Wyartt said: “The impact school closures has on the mental health of young people is devastating, so it’s important that young people return to school as early as possible.
“However, from my understanding, the scientific data simply isn’t there to support all students returning to school full-time.”
Whilst the number of vaccinations to COVID-19 in London has risen rapidly in previous weeks, many vulnerable people are still waiting for their second dose of the vaccine.
Katie added: “One member of our household is extremely clinically vulnerable. It’s a massive worry sending our children back to school before he’s had his second vaccine.
“The schools and teachers are doing an amazing job, but we know the kids aren’t all social distancing outside of class, and there isn’t always enough ventilation or space in the classroom either.”
The use of face masks has become the norm, but the rising numbers of disposable face masks being littered and thrown away has also caused environmental concern.
Daniela said: “Part of my concern would be the plastic waste. I would hope that people are using reusable masks, or they are just adding to another problem. If all school-age children have to wear them then that’s potentially a lot of one-use masks being disposed of.”
From Monday, all teachers and school children will be back in schools across London but whether face masks can or will be enforced is yet to be seen.
You can keep up to date with all COVID-19 related school updates here.