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Schools mask-wearing policy receives mixed responses

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

The Department of Education’s new policy on mask wearing in schools has received mixed responses locally, drawing flak from the Civil Union of Students and Parents (CUSP) and support from teachers’ union NASUWT and Together Gibraltar.

The policy announced on Wednesday will come into effect this Monday, and details when and where students and teachers are required to wear masks.

The 12-page policy outlines how older students, particularly those in Years 12 and 13, or receiving education in the Gibraltar College, will need to wear masks routinely in classrooms and in corridors.

Younger comprehensive students in Years 7 to 11 will need to wear masks intermittently, for example in corridors but not classrooms, while pupils in the primary sector do not need to wear masks at all.

Leader of Together Gibraltar, Marlene Hassan Nahon, said the party supports the Gibraltar Government’s new policy, but added that it falls just short of the recommended science.

“TG support the Government in the implementation of mask wearing in schools,” Ms Hassan Nahon said.

“The party is puzzled ,however, by the - yet again - 'ad hoc' solution implemented in our schools, in what seems to be a trend for this government: apply science-based solutions but not fully, just a notch below what science actually recommends, which in this case would be to implement mask use in all children of comprehensive age, excepting those with issues and disabilities that would warrant exemptions.”

“We hope these measures contribute to curb the spread of the virus, and that conspiracy theories and pseudo-science are pushed out of the public agenda once and for all.”

The GSD told the Chronicle the party was still reviewing the matter and would likely comment at a later stage.

The new policy was developed in consultation with NASUWT and has been backed by the union, with the hope it will curb the spread of Covid-19 within the school environment.

“Gibraltar NASUWT is supportive of the new mask-wearing policy, and appreciates that these guidelines have been based on Public Health advice,” NASUWT President Charlie Bishop told the Chronicle.

“These guidelines will ensure that everyone within the school community is better protected from Covid-19, especially those who may be most vulnerable to the virus, be they school staff or students.”

“We all want our schools to remain open.”

“These new measures should prevent Covid-19 from spreading within our school communities, also making it less likely that staff and students will have to self-isolate.”

“As such, as well as protecting everybody within our schools, these new guidelines will be beneficial in keeping the disruption caused by self-isolation to a minimum.”

“This can only be a good thing.”

But the new policy drew flak from the recently formed CUSP, whose members believe mask wearing in schools should have remained voluntary.

In a press statement, CUSP said that the policy was “unconstitutional” and “discriminatory” as students who choose to forego masks will be excluded from schools.

CUSP highlighted that mask-wearing could hinder some children who may have undiagnosed hearing issues, autism or other disabilities.

“Some studies show that up to 93% of our communication is non verbal and it plays a vital role in our ability to interact with others, and by removing micro expression; facial recognition and the ability to lip read is limiting what is being absorbed in a class,” CUSP said.

“Face covers can lead to changes in social dynamics, by creating a sense of anonymity and social isolation, leading to distrust, aggression and reduced awareness of others’ needs, vital for empathy.”

“It can create division by labelling people selfish or antiestablishment when really they are physically or psychologically unable to comply.”

The group said it did not accept that children could or should be “criminalised for not wearing a facemask or their teacher to be forced to uphold discriminatory practises,” adding that this would constitute bullying.

CUSP also called for reassurance that curriculum-based online education will be offered to those students who are unable or unwilling to comply with the new mask-wearing policy.

The group added that mask-wearing could be detrimental to children’s mental health, wellbeing and emotional development, and that older teenagers were being “targeted” to wear masks.

It said that despite consulting NASUWT, the Department of Education had not consulted parents and students prior to releasing the policy.

“Students should come first always,” CUSP said.

“The majority of our group have polled. The consensus is that we strongly disagree with the new measures being implemented. We urge government to reconsider for the best interests of our children.”

“A public health emergency does not give license to government to cast aside their obligations to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms including the right of young people to education and to do so in a non discriminatory setting.”

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