Research: How masks in class went from unimaginable to mainstream

15 Mar 2021, 5:00

As children returned to school this week, masks have been more in use than ever. Teacher Tapp’s Eve Debbage explores how their classroom use became mainstream

News reports at the onset of the pandemic led many of us to feel unsure about what precautions to take against Covid-19. One day, children were said to run a lower risk of infection; the next, pregnant women and children were the most susceptible. Then it was announced that face masks were unnecessary or even detrimental to health. It was a guessing game.

Wearing masks in schools was so out of the question this time last year that we didn’t even think to ask about it in our daily Teacher Tapp surveys as schools hurtled towards their first closures. Fast forward to now and we know masks are essential – or, at least, there’s a lot of evidence to support saying so. Our latest surveying, in January, shows that teachers are overwhelmingly in favour of the idea – a change from when we last wrote on this issue in Schools Week last September.

How did it take so long to reach this point? In June of last year, when the WHO began to advise mask wearing in public spaces, our surveys showed that more teachers thought the downsides of masks outweighed the benefits. Few staff wore them at the time, and practically no children did, with Teacher Tapp figures showing that only three per cent of primary schools were mandating usage when they returned in June.

Compulsion to wear masks is not possible – even if expulsion is the route you choose to go down

It wasn’t until the end of August that the Department for Education reversed its guidance and introduced masks in corridors for secondary schools. By the time we surveyed again, a few weeks later, a small majority of teachers (57 per cent) thought the advantages of masks outweighed the drawbacks. A month later, in October, this had significantly risen (73 per cent). By this point, almost half of schools required teachers to wear masks in at least some circumstances.

Then the second wave hit and another lockdown followed. When rumours circulated that the government was due to reopen schools in March, we surveyed ahead of the official announcements to see how teachers felt about the idea. Overall, 64 per cent of teachers felt it would still be unsafe. Secondary teachers were more concerned than those in primary schools – which may be why, when the announcement came, the government brought in two key safety measures: mass testing and face masks.

DfE guidance is that face masks are now ‘recommended’ for secondary pupils indoors in all circumstances, including throughout lessons, if social distancing can’t be maintained. School leaders are left to determine their specific school’s policy. But compulsion to wear masks is not possible – even if expulsion is the route you choose to go down.

For children aged below 11, the guidance states that while primary staff should wear a face covering, it’s not a requirement for their pupils. We found that primary teachers mainly agreed with this, though heads are the most enthusiastic in their support. When we look by age, we can also see that teachers in their 20s are most supportive of the approach, which is logical since they have the lowest risk of complications from Covid-19.

There are other effective strategies to lower the risk of transmission. A recent study shows that fresh air is crucial to safer classrooms. Additionally, we have the speedy vaccine roll-out now, and more testing, so things are starting to feel optimistic.

While masks aren’t the be all and end all, it is encouraging that most parents, students and teachers are now expressing a good level of support for the guidance.

If we want to keep children in school – for good this time – and masks can help with that, then it’s a fair compromise. The biggest mystery, perhaps, is why it took such a long time for many of us to change our minds.

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  1. Andrew Colquhoun

    “The biggest mystery, perhaps, is why it took such a long time for many of us to change our minds.”
    Not really a mystery. The social harm caused by masks, and the detrimental impact on teaching and learning are obvious to most of us in the classroom. It seems that a majority are now convinced that the potential benefits outweigh the harms (although I’d like to know more about the methodology of your survey?) but that is by no means clear. The ‘evidence’ linked to in this article is pure conjecture from April last year, not taking into account any real world studies of the effectiveness of masks. The only such study that currently exists involved around 6000 Danes, half wearing masks and half not, and showed no statistically significant difference in the incidence of Covid infection between the two groups. This was despite the fact that the participants were wearing masks correctly, and changing them frequently, something that is not likely among schoolchildren. Even if there was good evidence for the real-world efficacy of masks (and I don’t think that there is) there are also clearly downsides to their use. Do the potential benefits outweigh the harms? Is it proportionate to legally mandate them in classrooms? These are the questions we should be asking.