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Our View: The school mask debate has pros and cons

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THE government decree making face masks mandatory for all schoolchildren above 6 years old was bound to spark a reaction And it is perfectly understandable that parents and teachers are questioning the practical value of a measure which is repressive and could be extremely difficult to implement, given the age of the subjects.

When a grown-up, who uses a face mask for 30 or 45 minutes in a supermarket, is desperate to get out and take it off, is it realistic to expect a seven- or ten-year-old – even a teenager – to keep the wretched thing on for two hours continuously, in high temperatures, until break time? And what are the protocols for dealing with the few children that will keep taking the mask off in class? Will their parents be fined €300 or will the child be sent home?

All these safety measures will be rendered meaningless at break-times when the children take off their masks and go into the playground where even the threat of corporal punishment would not ensure social distancing. And how effective will the face masks be after they are dropped on the ground, used as hankies, exchanged by children, ran under a tap etc? “What would be responsibility of the teacher if children are having difficulty following the health protocols,” asked the head of the primary teachers’ union, adding that teachers would be turned into child minders.

Parents groups of primary schools have also reacted angrily to the decision, a representative telling a newspaper, “if all day long the kids are taking off and putting on face masks there will be no time for lessons.” He also pointed out that children will not tolerate having a mask on for so many hours, in hot classrooms, reminding that the education ministry had originally planned mandatory mask-wearing for school children over 12. Parents will be meeting the education minister about the matter and the decree could still change.

Although the measure is very drastic, the government did not have many options considering the priority was to open schools for everyone on September 7. With the mandatory mask-wearing, random testing of students, children and school staff, purchase of single desks so children will be at a distance from each other and class numbers no larger than the 25 stipulated by the EU, it has taken all the measures deemed necessary to keep infections at a minimum. Nobody could accuse it of opening schools without all the necessary safety measures that would ensure infections are kept at a minimum. If masks were not made mandatory, there would be parents and probably teachers complaining about this as well.

The government’s objective was for schools to return to normality – children need to be in school, for more than just their education – because this is the only way the country will return to some form of normality. Having parents take time off work to look after their children attending school every other day disrupts people’s lives and causes problems to businesses. Public schools may be better prepared for distance learning now, but this should be a last resort, activated only if there was a big surge in cases countrywide.

Our objective as a society should be to carry on regardless, accept that Covid-19 is a part of our lives and take all the necessary measures to protect ourselves – wear the face mask in indoor spaces, wash our hands all the time, keep our distance from others and avoid kisses, embraces or handshakes with the bride and groom, if we are attending a wedding reception.

These latest safety measures, announced on Saturday are totally absurd. The state is in effect micromanaging human behaviour, in the name of Covid-19, by forbidding embraces and handshakes at weddings. It may as well ban weddings, christenings and social gatherings rather than dictate how people should greet each other, as if we are living in a police state. People have been complying with the government decrees, so far, but as the decrees become more repressive and intrusive there is a risk there will be a public backlash that would not be unjustified as the government could be seen to be abusing the rule by decree.

The wearing of face masks has been accepted – the fear of €300 fine has helped – and now it will extend to all school children over the age of six so they can all return to school, but public acceptance should not be construed by the government as a licence to keep curtailing personal liberties.

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