The requirement for children over age 5 to wear a mask in school, if they cannot maintain a distance of 6 feet from others, runs counter to guidance offered by the World Health Organization and the Department of Education in England.
Section 7 of the newest COVID-19 regulations, published late Thursday, governs the wearing of masks.
What do Cayman’s rules say on masks for children?
According to the Public Health Act (2021 Revision): Control and Management of COVID-19 Regulations, 2021 (SL 68 of 2021): “Any person over the age of five years old who is indoors [in] a public place, including an educational institution, and is unable to, or does not maintain a distance of six feet from every other person, shall cover that person’s mouth and nose with a mask or cloth face covering.”
Exceptions are listed for medical reasons; when a person is sitting or eating without talking at work/in school; and for restaurant customers sitting inside.
The regulations include a provision for those refusing to wear a mask because of a medical condition, that they “shall not be required to produce documentation verifying the condition”.
The rules also state the medical officer of health will issue “written guidance to implement the provisions of this regulation, which shall include guidance for the use of masks or cloth face coverings by children over the age of five years old”.
The Compass has requested a copy of this guidance, which does not appear to have been made public.
During a government press conference Thursday, when asked whether children would be required to wear masks in schools, Health Minister Sabrina Turner confirmed “for now”.
What does international advice say?
The WHO, alongside UNICEF, state no absolute requirement for children aged 6-11 to wear masks.
However, it suggests consideration should be given to factors such as: the level of transmission of the virus in the area where the child lives; how safely and appropriately the child can use a mask; access to masks; appropriate supervision around mask use; the potential impact on the child’s ability to learn and develop; and the level of risk of others around the child, such as the elderly or those with medical conditions.
In its guidance, it also states children under 5 should not be required to wear masks, citing the “safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance”.
In England, the Department of Education withdrew its guidance regarding face coverings in education earlier this year.
“From 17 May, in line with Step 3 of the roadmap, face coverings will no longer be recommended for pupils and students in classrooms or communal areas, in all schools and FE providers. Face coverings will also no longer be recommended for staff in classrooms,” the department states.
In fact, primary school children have largely been exempt from requirements to wear a mask for the duration of the pandemic.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England’s medical adviser, stated in March that there were two reasons for this: the inability of young children to wear masks properly for the duration of the school day and the potential implications for their learning and communication skills.
It's important that primary schoolchildren don't wear face coverings, says Public Health England's medical adviser Dr Susan Hopkins.
She explains that this is because covid infection rates are low among their age group and wearing face coverings could affect their development pic.twitter.com/HH8a36k6Fo
— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) March 2, 2021
Petition calls for ‘no masks in primary schools’
The petition, posted on campaigning platform change.org, states Cayman has “an excellent vaccination rate to protect our vulnerable citizens” and cites a lack of “recommendations from the UK to wear masks in Primary Schools”.
It asserts that children under the age of 12 do not use masks correctly and they “impair concentration and verbal participation in lessons”.
In addition, the petition says “increased sanitation and distancing along with comprehensive contingency plans to deal with outbreaks are sufficient to protect the community” and further reasons for masks not to be mandated for primary-school-aged children.
The online appeal argues that private schools should be allowed to set their own requirements, if private companies are permitted to “implement their own mask policies to protect their customers and clients”.
The petition was shared widely via Facebook and WhatsApp groups on Friday, after the new regulations were published late on Thursday evening.
In the “reasons for signing” section, one supporter asked, “Please can someone share the scientific basis for such a mandate in circumstances where the prevalence of Covid in the community is very low. How is this ‘living with Covid’? The only benefit for children wearing a mask is to protect those who have chosen not to be vaccinated. The risk of them getting sick themselves is so so low!!! This is not following science or WHO guidelines.”
Another added: “It is entirely disproportionate and subjecting our children to harsher rules than adults.”