Following the government’s latest U-turn, teachers and pupils in England will no longer be advised against wearing face coverings in secondary schools. In areas with high levels of coronavirus or localised lockdowns, children will be recommended to wear face coverings in areas of the school where social distancing is not possible.
The Guardian spoke to teachers about their thoughts on the shift in policy.
‘It’s a step we should have taken earlier’
Lina Noor, a 33-year-old teacher in north London who supports lower-attaining students, said she thought the U-turn was long overdue.
“I believe we need to take every precaution available to reduce the percentage of infections,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be much chance of us getting the cure anytime soon, so it’s better to focus on preventing [the spread]. It’s a step we should have taken earlier.”
She added: “People close to me have died of the virus. I think people have different perceptions of the risk until it hits them personally.”
Noor said that in the case of a localised lockdown, schools would be better able to enforce the rules if there was more emphasis on educating children, and the wider community, about why masks must be worn.
“I respect people’s decisions on masks. If they don’t want to wear them, they have their own reasons, and forcing people is not going to get you anywhere. You have to educate them,” she said. “Lots of people have said that they don’t want to traumatise the children by making everyone wear masks, but I think the school has a responsibility to educate children, both on handling the masks properly and on the pandemic. I don’t think you should hide kids, you need to prepare them.”
‘I don’t feel very safe going to back to work’
Lauren Ellis, a 42-year-old secondary school teacher in Kettering, said she hoped masks would help students and staff feel safer, which was important for their mental wellbeing, and that her friends and colleagues appeared to feel more confident.
“Face coverings are required on transport and in shops, so I do feel safer having the choice,” she said. “For whatever reason the mask-wearing might not happen, but I do feel I deserve the choice”.
However, Ellis said masks were not the solution and she still did not feel safe going into work. She said more guidance needed to be offered on things like marking books.
“I’m a single parent, so I rely heavily on my parents for support, and have just started seeing them again since lockdown. Now going back to school, I worry I can’t, and I don’t think these sorts of things are taken into account,” Ellis said. “I don’t think the government has consulted the people who work in schools enough to see what’s practical, and there isn’t any guidance on things like marking, because I have hundreds of students and rely on looking at kids’ books. Personally, I don’t feel very safe going to back to work”.
‘I’d prefer it if the kids were wearing masks’
In Yorkshire, 55-year-old Linda (not her real name) also welcomed the announcement and said she would be wearing a mask in classes, but also suggested the measures needed to go further to include face coverings in classrooms. Linda is diabetic and lives with an elderly parent who has underlying health conditions, so is also at high risk from coronavirus.
“Although the information is that most children don’t get particularly ill with [coronavirus], some do, and I also think we have to protect the whole of society, not just ourselves,” she said. “Everybody has different feelings on risk, and I’d imagine mine is towards the higher end, but I’d prefer it if the kids were wearing masks.”
She said she felt fears about competition or bullying over mask-wearing were overstated.
“There’s always going to be something, whether it’s who’s got the best shoes, bag or coat, so I don’t think that’s any more of an issue than anything else in schools,” she said. “We have to adapt.”
Instead, Linda’s main concern was unclear directives from the government, and how this would impact enforcement should a local lockdown be announced and masks be made compulsory.
“My school have been fantastic and done all they can, but I wish the government had been a bit more proactive and a bit clearer,” she said. “They say something, and then don’t back it up. If you had a rule that all children should walk on the left-hand side of the corridor and none of the senior managers supported that, it would be very hard to put in place.”
‘There is some for whom masks make life more difficult’
One of the primary concerns around the wearing of face coverings in schools has centred around communication, with fears that masks would muffle speech and make lip-reading impossible, issues that are particularly salient for people who are deaf or hearing impaired.
“I wear two hearing aids, and when meeting people with face coverings I am rendered practically deaf, as they muffle the sound and I’m unable to fall back on lip-reading,” said imon Humphreys, 57, a hearing-impaired computer science teacher at a sixth form in Cambridge. “It seems that masks do help, particularly for immune-compromised people, but we have to be aware that there is a section of the community for whom masks make life a lot more difficult.”
He added: “Online teaching actually worked a lot better for me, as I had no communication issues as I could wear headphones or turn the volume up. It was difficult in other areas, but practically for me as a hearing-impaired teacher, it worked quite nicely.”
Source: The Guardian