Fears masks could damage mental health as Covid curbs tightened in schools

·5-min read

A senior Conservative has said he fears mask-wearing in schools could damage children’s mental health as the Government insisted the extra precaution would help keep pupils learning.

Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons education select committee, said the risks from Covid-19 need to be balanced against the risks to children’s wellbeing.

He made the comments as the Government announced masks will return for secondary school students in England’s classrooms on a temporary basis this term.

Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said he would rather have masks worn in classrooms than children out of school.

“I think in terms of schools, if the choice is between having masks at schools or children missing schools in huge numbers, of course we want to keep pupils learning. That’s got to be the priority,” he told Sky News.

The news comes as health minister Ed Argar said he saw “nothing” in the current data to suggest further restrictions were needed.

“We need cool, calm heads,” he told Times Radio.

“We need to look at the data and we need to do everything possible to avoid any restrictions.

“Restrictions or curbs must be the absolute last resort. I’m seeing nothing at the moment in the data I have in front of me, in the immediate situation, that suggests a need for further restrictions. But that data changes day by day.

“I, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, are looking at that data every single day. And we keep a close eye on it.”

Speaking to the PA News Agency, Mr Halfon said: “My concern about masks is, first of all, that… (children’s minister) Will Quince came to my committee in December and said that there was very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings.

“Even Jonathan Van-Tam said in November – so I’m not quoting from two years ago, before everyone knew what was going on – that masks were really inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children involving speech and facial expression, and that it’s very difficult for children with face masks.

“The (National Deaf Children’s Society) has said that they’re worried… that deaf children’s education will suffer disproportionately under the mask advice.”

He added: “My big worry is that, whilst you’ve got to balance the risks of Covid, which are minimal, thank goodness, to kids – and… we’ve got teachers and support staff vaccinated, many will have had the booster vaccination as well – so you’ve got to balance that on one side of the scale against the risks to children’s mental health, wellbeing.

“And there is a lot of evidence out there from Belgium, to Canada, to the United States, suggesting that masks on children have a damaging effect, or can have a negative effect on their mental health, their wellbeing, their ability to communicate, their emotional awareness.

“And that’s why I have worries about the mask policy.”

He said the Department for Education should be assessing the impact of mask-wearing in schools.

“The World Health Organisation says there should be an impact assessment at the onset of mask-wearing, so this should have been done already by the department in terms of what happens when kids wear masks in school,” he said.

“The key question for me is… we say that, OK, shops, you have to wear them in shops, but you don’t have to wear them in offices. There is no requirement to wear masks in offices for adults. So why is there a requirement for children in schools, in classrooms, when children are at least risk from Covid? I don’t get it.”

Mr Halfon also offered his thanks to teachers and support staff across the country “for everything that they’re doing, because it’s a mammoth effort to try and get kids in school and keep the schools open”.

Taking part in a question and answer session in November, deputy chief medical officer Sir Jonathan spoke about masks in schools, saying: “I can see that they could be quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children involving speech and facial expression. I think it’s difficult for children in schools with face masks.”

The Government said the reintroduction of masks in secondary classrooms would “maximise the number of children in school” for the “maximum amount of time” in light of the recent surge in the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

It stressed that the recommendation for both schools and colleges would be temporary, remaining in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are scheduled to expire. At this point it will be reviewed.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

It follows a call in December from Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi for ex-teachers to help with Covid-related staff shortages in the new year.

Jo Campion, deputy director of advocacy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said the return of face masks in secondary classrooms would “fill thousands of deaf students with dread”.

“For more than 35,000 deaf students in England, face masks make lip reading impossible and prevent sign language users from understanding crucial facial expressions,” she said.

The Government is also temporarily recommending that masks are worn in university teaching spaces such as workshops, laboratories, offices, libraries and lecture halls, in addition to corridors and communal areas, from January 4.

But staff would not “ordinarily” be expected to wear a face covering while teaching, according to the guidance.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned that restrictions on freedom “must be an absolute last resort”, but on Saturday NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the Government “must be ready to introduce new restrictions at pace if they’re needed”.

A further 162,572 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in England as of 9am on Saturday, a new record for daily reported cases in the nation.

In a tweet, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pointed to the “phenomenal achievement” of administering 132 million Covid-19 vaccinations in a single year.

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