Fears masks could harm mental health as Covid restrictions tighten in schools

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A senior conservative said he was concerned that wearing masks in schools could harm children’s mental health as the government insisted the extra precaution would help students keep learning.

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education select committee, said the risks of Covid-19 must be weighed against the risks to children’s well-being.

He made the comments as the government announced the temporary return of masks for high school students to classrooms across England this term.

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

“I think in terms of schools, if the choice is between having masks in schools or children missing schools in droves, of course we want the students to keep learning. This has to be the priority, ”he told Sky News.

The news comes as Health Minister Ed Argar has said he sees “nothing” in the current data to suggest further restrictions are needed.

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

“We have to look at the data and we have to do everything we can to avoid any restrictions.

“Restrictions or curbs should be the absolute last resort. I see nothing at this time in the data that I have in front of me, in the immediate situation, that suggests a need for further restrictions. But this data changes from day to day.

“I, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, I look at this data every day. And we are watching this closely. “

Speaking to the PA News Agency, Mr Halfon said: “My concern about the masks is, first of all, that … (Minister for Children) Will Quince came before my committee in December and has said there was very little evidence for the effectiveness of masks in educational settings.

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

“The (National Society of Deaf Children) has stated that it is concerned… that the education of deaf children is suffering disproportionately under the guidance of the mask.”

He added: “My big concern is that while you have to balance the risks of Covid, which are minimal, thank goodness, for the children – and … we have teachers and support staff vaccinated, many will have had the booster. vaccination too – so you have to balance that on one side of the scale with the risks to children’s mental health and well-being.

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

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

He said the education ministry should assess the impact of wearing masks in schools.

“The World Health Organization says there should be an impact assessment at the start of mask wear, so it should have already been done by the department in terms of what happens when children wear masks at school, ”he said.

“The key question for me is… we’re saying, okay, stores, you have to wear them in stores, but you don’t have to wear them in offices. It is not mandatory to wear masks in adult offices. So why is there a requirement for children in schools, in classrooms, when children are at least at risk of Covid? I do not understand.

Mr Halfon also thanked teachers and support staff across the country “for all they are doing, for it is a colossal effort to try to get the kids into school and to 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 natural expressions of learning in children. children involving speech and facial expression. I think it’s difficult for kids in schools with face masks on. “

The government has said that reintroducing masks in high school classrooms “would maximize the number of children in school” for “the maximum duration” in light of the recent increase in the highly transmissible variant Omicron.

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

(PA Graphics)

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

Jo Campion, deputy director of advocacy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said returning face masks to high school classrooms “would terrorize thousands of deaf students.”

“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 the wearing of masks in university teaching spaces such as workshops, laboratories, offices, libraries and lecture halls, in addition to hallways and common areas, from January 4.

But staff should not “normally” wear face coverings while teaching, as directed.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned that restrictions on freedom “must be an absolute last resort” but on Saturday NHS supplier general manager Chris Hopson said the government “must be prepared to introduce new restrictions at a pace if necessary ”.

Another 162,572 laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in England at 9 a.m. on Saturday, a new record of cases reported daily in the country.

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


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