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'Why I'm refusing to send my child to school with a face mask'

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 09/03/2021 Jack Rear
a group of people sitting at a table: do children have to wear masks in school? - Toby Melville/Reuters © Toby Melville/Reuters do children have to wear masks in school? - Toby Melville/Reuters

As was the case for so many parents, my 14-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son went back to school yesterday. Where they might differ from most children is that I’ve written to their schools to ask that they be exempt from wearing masks in the classroom. 

I saw the measure to close schools as a disproportionate mitigation and I feel the same about reopening them with children forced to wear face coverings. 

You know how people sometimes have a problem with a tag in a garment that they have to cut off? My son has sensory issues like that, but with things on his face. He’s never used napkins and hasn't used tissues all his life. So wearing masks is not a great thing for him. I also have a nephew with autism, and I feel for those people who haven't been thought of. 

It's been heralded as an easy thing, a low cost measure - it's just a piece of cloth. But while masks are uncomfortable for most of us, for people with sensory issues they’re really terrible and miserable. When I asked my son what he thought about the new guidelines he replied, ‘If it’s a choice between more home learning and wearing masks in class, then it’s a choice between two equally bad options.” 

On his first day in his new sixth-form in September, he was chased down the corridor by the head of maths and shouted at for not wearing a mask. After that he asked me write in with an exemption request. 

The school did accept it although they first said that we need medical proof, but it's no different for children than it is for adults - you don't need to show anyone a GP's certificate, so the school accepted that. I also wrote to them last week to say he would need to be exempt from wearing one in class from this week. 

But that still leaves the significant problem of peer pressure and the fear of standing out. For anyone, that's difficult but when you're a teenager there's so much pressure to conform. He says he's going to feel like a pariah. 

There's a more general anxiety that forcing children to wear masks in schools will cause. In many families, people (including children) are so afraid of Covid that parents are washing groceries. One of my daughter's friends has a mother who quarantines the food in the garage for three days.

This real fear and anxiety at home gets into the children. You tell them that they need to wear masks because otherwise they'll kill their granny, and then you test them three times before school starts and it instills in them a form of germaphobia. And health anxiety is a real thing.

I have no faith that we’ll be ‘back to normal’ by June, and I think masks do provide a huge barrier to getting back to that because of the strong visual symbolism they represent of the fear of Covid, that there is danger everywhere. 

Getting rid of the mask would help people go back to normal. While they're mandated, people will continue to feel mistrustful of fellow humans, as though they are walking biohazards instead of human beings. 

And I think masks hamper learning too. In a language class, you're trying to look at the teacher's lips to see if you're pronouncing words correctly, it's not going to be very effective for foreign languages and other things like drama and music. 

I’ve done a lot of research on this, I’ve read a lot of studies and I’m convinced that the evidence for masks in schools is weak. One professor, Carl Heneghan, said it's low-quality observational evidence based on small observational studies, or laboratory studies, or modelling studies. It's weak evidence. It might be the case that they work a little bit but it's far from proven and far from strong evidence. 

To bring about such an intrusive measure that a lot of young people will find difficult, and I think is unscientific, is wrong.

From what I see, these measures just aren't proportionate, they haven't been taken on the scientific evidence; while there is some it's very weak. I believe the decision to ask kids to wear masks is largely political. 

I spoke to the CEO of my daughter's school trust in September about why they'd cancelled all the extra-curriculars before school had even begun, and he said that the school had taken legal advice and been told that they needed to be seen to be mitigating risk. 

I know that many parents will disagree with me. I wrote to 28 parents at my daughter’s school about the issue, and most said while they weren’t totally in favour, they’d cut their left arm off to get their kids back in school so they’ll put up with asking them to wear masks.

I think that's the attitude of a lot of parents right now. They'll accept almost anything that a year ago we would have reacted to, just because being out of school has been so damaging. 

But where’s the line? When you start making compromises on masks and testing, what else will you make a compromise on? How much do we have to compromise for our children’s right to an education? At some point you have to say, enough is enough.

As told under condition of anonymity to Jack Rear

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