Many children and their families are once again facing uncertainty about going back to school after the Christmas holidays. Some will remain shut, some will mix online and classroom learning, with different areas and even individual schools revising their positions again and again. The Northern Ireland Executive has opted to extend their mask mandate to include classrooms as well as in corridors and public areas (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-55503759). For those who take a broad view of children’s welfare issues, this is concerning. Of course proportionate measures need to be taken to minimise spread of coronavirus, but one wonders if a proper risk assessment has been undertaken on the effects of wearing masks six hours a day, five days a week on children’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.
When you’re, say, 11, you’re developing your skills in reading people’s expressions: when you can trust someone, when you’re being lied to, reading signals, developing instincts. There’s the potential for real harm in disrupting this. What harms will this generation of children suffer in terms of mental and emotional health? Will they be more susceptible to being abused as a result?
The risks should have been properly weighed up: the risk of children widely transmitting coronavirus (which the latest update from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control states is small (https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications-data/children-and-school-settings-covid-19-transmission) versus the increased risk of harm to children as coronavirus-related interventions continue and deepen (which we know is high https://post.parliament.uk/child-and-adolescent-mental-health-during-covid-19/).
Proportionality is key. It is essential that the broad, long-term risks of harm to children caused by the current coronavirus interventions are not ignored in favour of headline-grabbing statistics. It’s saving up problems for the future.