The chair of the UK education select committee has spoken out against mask-wearing in schools, saying he believes masks could damage children’s mental health. Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons education select committee, said the risks posed by Covid must be balanced against the risk to children’s wellbeing and mental health.
It comes as the UK Government insisted the extra precaution was necessary to help keep schools open. The senior Conservative said face coverings could be ‘inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children’.
Mr Halfon made the remarks about the potential damage of masking school pupils as the UK Government announced that masks will be reimplemented for secondary school students in English classrooms on a temporary basis this term. The UK’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said he would rather see masks worn in classrooms than by children outside of the school setting.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “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.” Speaking to Times Radio, he appealed for calm, saying: “We need cool, calm heads.”
“We need to look at the data and we need to do everything possible to avoid any restrictions,” he added.
Mr Streeting also said that more restrictions should be a last resort and that there was nothing in the data that currently suggests a need for further curbs on freedoms.
“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,” he added
Speaking out against masking school children, Mr Halfon told the PA News Agency, : “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 (UK Deputy Chief medical officer) 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.”
During a question and answer session in November, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam spoke out against 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.”
Mr Halfon also raised concerns from the National Children’s Deaf Society who have warned that masks will have a negative impact on deaf and hearing impaired children who rely on seeing facial expressions.
“The (National Deaf Children’s Society) has said that they’re worried… that deaf children’s education will suffer disproportionately under the mask advice.”
Deputy director of advocacy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, Jo Campion, said the return of face masks in school classrooms would “fill thousands of deaf students with dread”.
Those same concerns have also been raised in Ireland. In a piece published on Gript <https://gript.ie/impact-of-nphet-mask-mandate-on-deaf-children-is-breaking-our-hearts/> in late November, one Irish mother of a profoundly deaf child said that NPHET’s mask mandate in place at the time was “breaking our hearts”. Margaret Byrne described mandatory face-masking for school children as “an emotional bomb among parents that have children with additional needs or a disability”.
The mother, whose son attends mainstream primary school in Ireland, told Gript she was in daily contact with many other worried parents in similar circumstances. She said a requirement to wear masks in schools would undoubtedly be “extremely detrimental to my son’s educational and social wellbeing”.
“This is because it is critically important for him and other deaf children to have full visual access to a person’s lips and face when they are communicating with them,” she added.
“To place a deaf child in this type of learning environment is unthinkable and even cruel.”
In an interview with Gript in December, Irish parents spoke out on masks in primary schools, arguing that children needed to see expressions and that mask mandates were “not right”.
In his comments this week, Mr Halfon said that the risks of Covid are thankfully ‘minimal’ to children and appealed for the risks of Covid to be balanced against the risks to children’s mental health and wellbeing.
“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.”
He also pointed to international evidence that suggests masking children has a damaging effect
“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.”
The Conservative said that 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 added.
“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 expressed his thanks to teachers and support staff across England “for everything that they’re doing, because it’s a mammoth effort to try and get kids in school and keep the schools open”.