On Christmas Eve, I went to the pantomime in London’s West End with a friend and our three children. While we were preparing to leave the house, my son – who’s five – reminded me of something vital.
“Don’t forget your mask, Mummy! I’ve got mine!” I looked at him and had to stifle a laugh, because he was wearing a bright green Hulk costume, the mask covering his entire face – not just his nose and mouth. If only we all took to mask-wearing so easily.
In my little boy’s pocket, however: a thin piece of fabric with a dinosaur motif. His mask, in other words. Something he popped on without any fuss at all as we took the bus, then the Tube – chattering all the way to his best friend, utterly unencumbered by it, giggling away; the pair of them shovelling sweets beneath the edges as fast and as sneakily as they could get away with.
To him, mask-wearing in public places (let’s not forget we live in crowded, coughing London, the epicentre of Omicron to date) has become utterly routine – something you “just do”.
In all likelihood, given he was only three when the pandemic began in 2020, he can’t even remember life before masks. And while of course I wouldn’t choose this kind of self-isolated, socially distanced, smile-covered society for him (what parent would?) I have to be completely honest and say this out loud: he’s absolutely fine with it.
He’s happy, he’s well-adjusted, he’s popular and bold. He also has asthma, so is on the “vulnerable” list – masks keep children like him safe. Has his breathing been affected by wearing a mask when we go out? Not in the slightest. But it would be if he contracted Covid.
Seeing how well and how naturally my children have adapted to mask-wearing only makes the riotous clamour against them seem more ridiculous. And it’s all coming from adults: a straw man argument if ever there was one. People are arguing on behalf of children, without – seemingly – actually asking children what they think about the government asking all secondary school-aged pupils to wear masks, and for regular testing (both at school on site and at home).
But while the fear and dismay found in the backlash to the tightening of restrictions when it comes to schools might be understandable (I suspect that for many people, continued mask-wearing is tantamount to being forced to confront a situation they don’t like, or are afraid of) – the ferocity of it is not. We are hearing news of anti-vaxxers storming an NHS Test and Trace centre; of “wilful fire-raising” at a Covid testing centre in Dumbarton. What a terrible example to set our children.
The Twitter hashtag #nomasksinclass is full of adults protesting the loss of “freedom”, while actual teenagers – the ones who will be affected by the new rules – tell it as it really is. “I’m a student. Masks are not a burden to wear, or a ‘muzzle’ as some have claimed,” one wrote. “They’re simple measures we can all take to protect each other. I wish the anti-mask rabble would not speak on behalf of the student voice they are not a part of. #NoMasksInClass.”
Another young person shared a photo of herself wearing a mask and wrote: “I can promise no child/teenager cares about wearing masks in class. We’d rather keep ourself and families safe instead of listening to conspiracy theories. Unlike a lot of you ‘adults’ #NoMasksInClass.”
We are all sick of living with Covid, and we all want to get back to normal – fast. But these kinds of measures are exactly what will help us get through it – and out the other side. And while I have sympathy with parents who weep at the thought that their children aren’t getting the kind of “regular” school life that we had – we need to get real. Nobody wants their children to wear masks all day, but these aren’t regular times. We need to suck it up, get on with it and adapt – something children are extremely good at.
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My year 1 son and year 5 daughter are due to go back to school tomorrow, so I asked them both how they might feel if they had to wear masks all day (even though that’s not currently in the plan B pipeline). Here’s what they said (and I’ll be absolutely truthful):
My son (five) gave me a thumbs down. When I asked him why, he said wearily, “I don’t want to wear one all the time – it means you can’t say things loudly.” When I probed a little more to find out if he knew why masks might be important, he added: “I think you need to wear masks because the bad air would be trying to get in your mouth, so you need to wear a mask so it doesn’t. I think wearing a mask would be good to stop the bad air.”
My daughter (nine) was more philosophical: “It would be annoying to have to wear it all day at school but if it’s for the best, so people don’t get Covid [Omicron] then I think it’s a good idea, because we need to stay safe.”
And there we have it: from the mouths of babes. Maybe we should ask – and listen – more often.