It seems remarkable that, only six months ago, we were still under the impression that it was perfectly fine to shake hands and hug each other. I remember having friends over at the beginning of March. Though we remarked on this distant virus, I don’t think any of us thought it was coming our way and we certainly had no idea it would change our lives in the way it subsequently has.
And as for facemasks? Well, this was something that other countries did. Even at the height of the first wave, seeing a Brit with a mask was as rare as a sighting of the Loch Ness monster. Masks were for other people, those across the other side of the world.
My first personal donning of the mask took place in Spain in July. I don’t think I have ever seen such a unified display of obedience as in Oviedo, the Asturian city where my in-laws live. A quite remarkable sight of 100% observance. My son forgot his mask one morning; within seconds a local policeman was at his side flanked by a chorus of onlookers chanting ‘mascarilla!’
If wearing masks prevents the spread of the virus, then I’m in favour. It is also a great display of solidarity. More of this later. But, for practical reasons, I am far from convinced it is appropriate in schools, certainly not in primary schools and special schools. That is not a libertarian argument, nor does it signal lazy assumptions that the virus is not a threat in school buildings. It’s a practical argument.
In the unlikely event of a child carrying a viral load, this load will be sneezed and coughed into the mask. It doesn’t disappear. Young children will find it almost impossible to stop touching it, fiddling with it – let’s face it, they’re not pleasant to wear. If it’s being taken off and on (classrooms no, corridors yes), there is an increasing risk of it being put down on surfaces, spreading the viral load (probably denser) between bubbles. I fail to be convinced it has even a neutral benefit, and I do believe it could be counter-productive. For schools like mine, where one-third of pupils receive some form of support for their special educational needs, putting masks on and off is confusing, time-consuming and maybe even upsetting.
So for me it’s thumbs-up for adults, but unnecessary and unpleasant for children. As the government, in its now-familiar modus operandi, has shrugged its shoulders and told headteachers to decide, I will be minimising mask-wearing in my school, focusing far more on the importance of hand-washing and general hygiene.
However, I want to refer back to the community element of all this and reflect on the cultural (maybe even philosophical) response, afraid as I am that we may be heading for yet another period of individualistic angst, rancour and victimhood. Let me explain.
People still seem to see the mask as a personal protection, an act of individual choice. It is not. It is an act of protection for others and, in choosing to wear a face mask, one is signalling a respect and love for those in the community. It is only of benefit to an individual if the rest of the community join in. Indeed, all other mitigation measures follow a similar pattern. You can wash your hands, but if the rest of your class don’t, you are exposed to as much risk as everyone else because it’s their germs that are being exposed to you, not yours.
My opposition to masks in schools is a practical one, in that I don’t think it’ll help much, if at all. But I am totally in favour of the principles behind their use.
Here, I’d like to expand on the communitarian theme. For schools must fit into the bigger picture of virus control, and this appears to be less discussed, diverted as we have been by the mask.
The goal, as I see it, is to reduce the transmission in the community. The evidence is becoming conclusive that there is little danger to children and young people. The aim therefore is to prevent community transmission so that cases do not get into, for example, nursing homes. Therefore, schools cannot be seen in isolation. Our role as teachers is to ensure our pupils understand this, that the measures they take to minimise the transmission of the virus are not to protect them, they are to protect their community.
This message must also go out to parents. They are not necessarily endangering their children or themselves by ignoring guidelines, they are potentially endangering the local dementia care home. We are doing these things for other people, those more vulnerable that ourselves.
I have told staff that it is highly likely that there will be a positive case within the school, and that local measures may be implemented at some stage when cases reach a higher level. It’s not certain, but it’s likely.
But it’s not a huge deal, it really isn’t. If members of the community take the necessary measures, engage with the NHS and work together, rates will most probably stay at manageable levels and we can get back to a sense of normality. Alternatively, if people just think ‘well I’m OK’, and ignore their community obligations, we run the risk of it getting to the people where it can cause pain. In this scenario, the family at the centre of the outbreak will seek to blame someone else, the school, the NHS, the Pope, the European Union, whoever. This is a self-centred response and leads to the victimhood culture which is gaining rather too much momentum.
Over the summer, I’ve listened to a number of the Rethink essays set up by the BBC. Prominent thinkers have tried to articulate what a post-pandemic world could look like, how changes could be made. Almost all of them mention the need for greater collaboration and sharing. Indeed, almost all the world’s problems could be solved if this simple philosophy was followed. Act for the benefit of one’s community, not exclusively for yourself.
Mask-wearing has become the latest issue to cause division and provoke outrage and hostility. My opposition to masks in schools is practical, in that it won’t change much but could spread the viral load even more. But the principles behind the wearing of masks are wholly consistent with the new world we must embrace.
To do something that manifestly supports your own neighbour is exactly the kind of response we need for the tough year lying ahead.