Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Parents, fight the folly of school masks

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AMONG the most worrying knee-jerk reactions to the Omicron variant of Covid is the Government’s ‘recommendation’ that secondary school pupils in England must wear masks this term – even though this goes directly against a study cited by its own Education Department. 

According to that study, there is no conclusive proof of the effectiveness of face coverings, while there are indications that they are detrimental to some youngsters wearing them.  

Despite this, the Government is ‘recommending’ the use of masks in English schools, and many are already imposing them unquestioningly. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already put in place such measures.  

So what can concerned parents do to combat this over-the-top reaction? To help lead the fightback, Sinead Murphy has composed a letter to the headteacher of her son’s school which forensically dissects the bizarre policy and calls for it to be scrapped. Parents may want to use it as a basis to pen their own protests.  

‘You may judge the letter to be valuable to readers of TCW as a template or as encouragement,’ she says. ‘It is hard to find words to respond to this new wave of wanton callousness.’  

Here is the full letter … 

Dear (headteacher’s name), 

I wish to address (school’s name)’s recent decision to impose on its students the requirement that they wear a face mask during the entirety of their school day unless they are outside or eating/drinking. This decision is neither legally nor morally defensible, and I petition you to reverse it with immediate effect.  

The UK government made an announcement on Sunday January 2, 2022, recommending the reintroduction of face masks in secondary school classrooms. They did not introduce a law mandating this. They made a recommendation only.  

For this reason, the reintroduction of face masks in classrooms is entirely the responsibility of individual schools, and individual schools are liable for the legal and moral implications of their policy.  

As you will know, (headteacher’s name), (school’s name) bears full responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of persons admitted to its premises, by performing risk assessments of any arrangement to which these persons are subjected while on the premises. This includes all children attending the school on any given day.  

(School’s name), being fully responsible for the imposition of mask-wearing on its children in response to government recommendations, is therefore legally required to carry out a risk assessment of this arrangement before subjecting its students to it.  

Has (school’s name) conducted this risk assessment? If not, then this constitutes gross negligence from a legal point of view. If so, then, as the mother of a student affected by (school’s name)’s mask policy, I request to be given immediate access to it.  

I make these observations on the legality of (school’s name)’s decision to impose all-day masking on its students on the advice of Francis Hoar, barrister, which is available here and elsewhere. 

On Wednesday January 5, the UK government released the evidence upon which it based its recommendation that masks be worn by all secondary children in classrooms as well as in social spaces in schools. The document containing this evidence is available here

This document cites no peer-reviewed studies into the efficacy of mask-wearing in preventing the spread of a respiratory virus in schools or elsewhere.  

This document does, however, contain the following statements: ‘Eighty per cent of pupils reported that wearing a face covering made it difficult to communicate, and more than half (55 per cent) felt wearing one made learning more difficult.’ 

‘Wearing face coverings may have physical side-effects and impair face identification, verbal and non-verbal communication between teacher and learner. 

‘A survey conducted by the Department for Education in April 2021 found that almost all secondary leaders and teachers (94 per cent) thought that wearing face coverings has made communication between teachers and students more difficult.  

‘Research into the effect of mask-wearing on communication has found that concealing a speaker’s lips led to lower performance, lower confidence scores, and increased perceived effort on the part of the listener. Moreover, meta-cognitive monitoring was worse.’ 

The Government’s evidence document also states that, although there is a study to suggest that Covid-19 absence fell by 0.6 percentage points in secondary schools that used face masks compared to similar schools that did not use face masks, this study was conducted over a 2-3 week period only and ‘there is a level of statistical uncertainty about the result’. 

(Headteacher’s name), the harms of mask-wearing by children, as described even in the Government’s evidence document, are significant and sufficient to make it essential that any imposition of mask-wearing by schools be undertaken with the utmost caution.  

But the harms described by the Government do not encompass all of the potential harms of wearing a face mask during the whole of the school day. These harms should be obvious to anyone with common sense and a common care for our children. They are listed comprehensively here, by the organisation UsForThem

Clearly, any risk assessment of (school’s name)’s imposition of mask-wearing on its students must weigh the harms of mask-wearing, as outlined in the Government’s own document and elsewhere, against the risks posed to them by the spread of the SARS CoV 2 virus.  

As is now established, the SARS CoV 2 virus poses a negligible risk to children. Stanford University’s Professor of Medicine, of Epidemiology and of Population Health, John Ioannidis, explains that, according to official statistics, those under 19 are at greater risk of dying from being pierced by a sharp instrument than of dying from COVID-19 (see here).  

Until schools remove all compasses etc, from students’ reach, any policy that they adopt with the aim of preventing the spread of SARS CoV 2 in school is inconsistent with schools’ other policies and therefore logically and legally indefensible.  

The UK government’s evidence document accepts the very low risk to children of the spread of the SARS CoV 2 virus. It states that ‘children and young people are at very low risk of serious illness from COVID-19 infection’. 

Why does the UK government nevertheless recommend the wearing of face masks in schools? Its evidence document explains the recommendation as follows: ‘Wearing face coverings is comparatively cheap and easy to implement and supervise. It can be a visible outward signal of safety behaviour and a reminder of COVID-19 risks.’ 

I appeal to you, (headteacher’s name), to consider the repugnance of this justification for recommending the imposition of face masks on school children, merely as a ‘signal’ and a ‘reminder.’  

(Teacher’s name)’s letter to parents on Monday January 3 began by alerting us to what she described as ‘a small change’ in government policy around mask-wearing. I confess that I was stunned.  

For the Director of Student Support at a Catholic school to describe the recommendation that children cover their faces for seven or more hours every day, that they impede their communication capabilities, that they struggle to maintain their self-confidence and their cognitive functioning, that they strain to establish an emotional connection with their friends and those around them, as a ‘small change’ was truly disheartening.  

My husband and I chose to send our son to (school’s name) almost solely on the grounds that the school was sure to be nurturing and formative of his moral, personal and social life. We are sadly disappointed in the apparent ease with which the school has decided to impose the wearing of face masks on its children.  

Any even cursory risk assessment would conclude that the risks to children from wearing masks in school far outweigh the risks to them from the SARS CoV 2 virus.  

If, as is common, (school’s name) came to its decision to impose face masks on its students on the grounds that it would protect teachers and general staff, and perhaps adults in the wider community too, then this decision is not only legally indefensible – children cannot be subjected to harms in order to protect older people – but also morally execrable. Children ought not, and must not, be treated as a mere means to an end.  

I urge you to consider this vital issue more carefully, (headteacher’s name), and repeat my request that you forward to me at your earliest convenience your school’s risk assessment document with respect to your decision to impose the wearing of face masks on the children in your care. 

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Dr Sinead Murphy
Dr Sinead Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

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