On the subject of masks and other no brainers…

No-one likes wearing a mask. Well, apart from burglars, fully consenting role-playing adults, and 3 year olds pretending to be Batman, pretty much no-one likes wearing a mask. But then no-one really ‘likes’ wearing a seat belt or a tie either. I doubt that builders like wearing safety hats, or that surgeons love wearing their scrubs but they do. Objecting to wearing a mask on the grounds that we might not ‘like’ to do so is frankly daft.

No-one likes living in the middle of a pandemic either. But we are.

We find ourselves rudderless in a time of crisis – watching in horror while our government, in the words of Sam Freedman, former adviser to Michael Gove, are “flailing around like a drunk uncle at a barmitzvah” and headteachers are bombarded by guidance that changes before the ink has dried on the previous set of guidance. These are grim times indeed. Schools are now at a point where they really have no choice but to take matters into their own hands, because at this time one thing matters – giving children the best education possible while keeping them, their teachers and their families as safe as possible. And only those heads and those teachers know the special and unique circumstances of their own schools.

I’m in the unusual position of having taught in the school my child attends. It is a school that has around 400 children more than the building was designed for. A school that was condemned over 10 years ago and listed for a rebuild under Building Schools for the Future. 10 years on, thanks to Michael Gove and a few local NIMBYs the children are still packed into that condemned building. There are no spare classrooms, and those occupied are overcrowded. The senior leaders and site staff have done all within their power to manage the space, but they can’t extend the building. The heating system creates strange climatic binaries – here we have the dry, arid climate and here the frozen Arctic tundra. Many windows don’t open, corridors are narrow and the dining hall so small that most children have to eat outdoors all year round. To be applying the same guidance to this school as a brand new under-occupied free school is frankly insane. It’s a no brainer that in this school, masks should be mandatory everywhere and that teachers should not be facing 30 children without visors.

But even in other schools, we need to look carefully at the evidence. Here’s some data from the British Medical Journal, 2020 on the impact of masks: –

And from the same article we can see that in indoor spaces, the virus can travel more than 6 metres –

But what are we to do? We can’t keep schools closed forever.

Here is what I think we should have done six months ago.

  1. Have accepted that Winter is coming and that things are going to get worse.
  2. Introduced blended learning plans so that secondary aged children who we now know spread the infection at the same rate as adults can attend schools on rota with live online lessons delivered by the teachers who would be timetabled to teach them at that time.
  3. Thrown resources into ensuring that every child of secondary age had access to IT equipment and continued to provide bubble provision for those who were vulnerable or who did not have access.
  4. Provided all schools with visors for staff and masks for children on FSM.
  5. Cancelled the exam schedule for Yr 10 and 12 and moved to a continuous assessment model with triple moderation in place to manage bias and consistency – internal moderation, local moderation across schools and national moderation by exam boards.

But we didn’t. My little cat, Sid, is prone to closing his eyes when something he doesn’t like happens. It’s as if he thinks it will all go away. We are led by Sid.

So what can we do now?

  1. Have our own plan Bs ready – we’re likely to need them at some point. And good online learning resources are great when a member of staff is off sick or when a child has to isolate, even if schools don’t close.
  2. Strongly encourage the wearing of masks in all indoor spaces for children over the age of 12 in line with WHO advice. Yes, some will touch their masks. Just as if they are not wearing them, some will pick their noses and wipe their bogies on the underside of the desk.
  3. Provide visors for teachers – even at close range studies show that they offer 45% protection and at distance, 75%. Better than having all your staff call in sick because they had 0% protection. And that way at least children can see their faces.
  4. Teach children how to use their masks responsibly in the same way you’ve taught them how to wash their hands.
  5. The chart above suggests it may not be a great idea after all to have children in the same classroom all day. Think of how the day can be broken up, ideally with outdoor activities.
  6. Think about fabrics. We know that the virus is carried for longer on synthetic fibres. What’s the point in cleaning the desks if they can’t clean their clothing?
  7. Set up bubbles with heightened safety procedures for those children whose parents are vulnerable and shielding. We cannot have children fearing that they will be responsible for the death of a parent. That’s an unbearable burden. Consult with those parents.

I know many schools will have already implemented these strategies, but many haven’t because they have understandably been hoping that the government know what they are doing. They don’t.

Yes, the physical risks to young people are small. We can infer that from this graphic. Yes, they need an education. But the picture looks different for their teachers. And if we have no teachers, we have no education.

We are in a rudderless boat, but we have paddles. It’s time for schools to row their communities to the safest place possible. Surely that’s a no brainer?

6 thoughts on “On the subject of masks and other no brainers…

  1. The usual , and now expected, spot on and very informative post. You talk so much sense always it’s a shame you are not a government advisor……..on second thoughts we would need a government first!

  2. I second what Terry said. 64 and recently diagnosed with Horton’s Disease, but otherwise fit, I’m due back in the (6th form) classroom soon and moving from fear towards resigned acceptance at the prospect. I want to be there. I miss learners and practising the craft, but obviously I’d rather not get seriously ill. My college has worked closely with the NEU, and thorough safeguards seem to be in place.

    You say ‘Think about fabrics’. What can be done there?

    1. It must be a real worry for you. As far as fabrics go, synthetics are more problematic as the virus lives longer on them and they tend to release microfibres into the air. They’re also less easily washed (think ties and blazers). So better to go for cottons and wear fresh each day if you can.

  3. The government burbles on about ‘bubbles’ and issues muddled info re facemasks but apart from that hasn’t done much that is practical to address problems such as the ones you graphically illustrate: overcrowding, unsuitable buildings that should have been replaced.

    It’s inevitable that many children will have to return home at some point because someone in their bubble becomes infected or there aren’t enough teachers. But lessons don’t have to be delivered on-line at scheduled times.

    Not all homes have reliable broadband; not all children in a house have their own computers; not all homes have space for children to follow their on-line lessons undisturbed (remember the bedroom tax). Far better to have packs of work for pupils to do which would supplement on-line tuition. These could direct pupils to on-line resources which already exist (eg BBC Bitesize; Future Learning). Systems would need to be set up so teachers could check pupils’ learning on a one-to-one basis.

    1. Yes, though of course online lessons can be recorded on Loom or Zoom and made available to be viewed at any time so both are possible. I suppose the problem with packs is that they have to be printed and delivered (assuming not all parents have access to a printer) then collected, marked and returned. Online systems cut a lot of that out – we really need govt to be tackling that digital divide urgently.

  4. Thanks for this clear, informative post. I was thinking of writing something based on the same BMJ article, but this is far better than anything I could do. I do think that, going forward, this information is a sound basis for informing formal risk assessments for different activities, taking both the venue and length of activity in to account in decisions on mask-wearing.

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