The Spanish Association of Pediatrics is in favor of removing masks from school classrooms. The entity has prepared a proposal consisting of gradually withdrawing it, starting at the end of this month for the first and second grades of primary school, and monitoring the impact of the measure on the number of infections for a couple of weeks before continuing with the third and fourth grades. course and, later, if things have gone reasonably well, with fifth and sixth. Pediatricians have compared the infections registered in the last year of childhood (when children are five years old and the use of the mask is not mandatory) and in the first year of primary school (six years, when they do have to wear it) and have concluded that in both levels have been similar. If all goes well in schools, the measure could be extended in the third quarter of the course to secondary school students.
From an educational point of view, studies suggest that the use of masks complicates teaching, an obstacle that, according to teachers, is aggravated in children with learning difficulties. Teacher unions call for caution when introducing changes to health protocols.
The epidemiologist and member of the Spanish Association of Pediatrics Quique Bassat affirms that, in addition to helping school activities return to normal, the measure would be a good way to test the general removal of masks indoors. Children are a group that is not very vulnerable to covid, and if stopping wearing the mask caused an increase in infections in schools, this would not automatically translate into an increase in serious cases. It would be, continues Bassat, a less risky way to take the step towards ending indoor masks than doing it all at once with the entire country, in the style of what Denmark or the United Kingdom have done.
What has changed compared to a few months ago for pediatricians to raise this initiative? “We have a different variant of the virus, which is very contagious and is going to cause many cases and, therefore, we have to live with it. And this is part of a broader paradigm shift, where we’ve gone from a situation where we’re trying to count and prevent every infection, to one where we don’t really care what infections there are, as long as we don’t have clinical significance”, responds Bassat. From what has been verified with the enormous wave of infections of the omicron (even greater in the case of children), the disease in the school-age population is in the vast majority of cases mild and causes “little clinical significance” . To this must be added the high general vaccination rate achieved in the country (81% of the total population, and around 50% with booster doses).
Bassat mentions two elements that favor withdrawal, which pediatricians plan to start doing at the end of February. The incidence of the disease shows a consolidated downward trend, and spring is approaching, with higher temperatures. Last week the use of the mask was no longer mandatory in the outdoor spaces of educational centers. And Catalonia has already announced its intention to also remove them in classrooms this month.
Families, teachers and children
The measure has been well received by the great federation of families in Catalonia, Affac, explains its director, Lidón Gasull: “The mask has consequences for student learning, communication and socialization within the classroom. If the health situation requires it and it is essential, very well, we can deprive children of it, but as soon as the experts say that it is possible to remove it, doing so should be a priority measure. Mari Carmen Morillas, spokesperson for the state federation of majority families in public schools, Ceapa, affirms, for her part, that if health specialists endorse the measure, her entity will support it. “What we would ask for is that there be unity, that there are not some communities where they are removed and others that are not.” Morillas adds that, since the beginning of the pandemic, schools have had stricter health standards than other social areas, such as the hotel industry, so that starting the de-escalation for them would be a certain form of justice. A small survey carried out by this newspaper among primary school students shows that, after the initial surprise caused by the possibility of not wearing it, most children would be delighted to do so.
The children internalized the use of the mask very quickly and have maintained it with a discipline that was surprising at first, says the president of the federation of directors of public schools, Fedeip, Vicent Mañes. Its use has generated practically no conflict in the school, he continues, but during these two years it has generated “many inconveniences” from the pedagogical point of view. “Verbal communication is very important in primary school, because you don’t give a book to a student and tell him: ‘Study it and tomorrow we’ll take an exam.’ Communication has been very difficult, with some teachers using a portable speaker and children not being able to lip read. For students with special needs, the problem has been even greater”. The teacher believes that, in any case, part of the teachers will prefer to continue wearing a mask, even if their students do not have to.
Olga Catasús, president of the primary directors of Murcia, has verified in class problems similar to those mentioned by Mañes. “If it were said to remove them right now, when there is still a high incidence, I would say that rushing is not good advice. But on the other hand, we teachers are aware that we have to try to recover normality. And that with the good mood that we perceive in the courtyard with the withdrawal of the mandatory use of the mask, it is also necessary to do it in the classroom, ”she adds.
In Spain there are not many studies on the effect of the mask on teaching. One of those published, carried out at the University of Alicante and entitled The influence of the COVID-19 mask on speech intelligibility in the classroom, found in October that the garment makes it more difficult to understand a speaker in the classroom. And also that the majority of the students (64%) who participated in the research considered that its use was “annoying, overwhelming and hot”, a percentage that decreased in the case of teachers (46%). The results are in line with what other international research has found, in the sense that masks make classes more difficult, although without reaching dramatic conclusions in terms of learning, at least for the average student body.
The teachers’ unions, for their part, have already called for caution when a few days ago it was decided to lift the obligation to wear the mask at recess, and they recalled that the vaccination of children between 5 and 11 years of age has not been completed. 56% of the population of that age have received at least one dose. But a good part of them will still take some time, until well into March, to receive the second, since the immunization calendar contemplates in their case a wait of eight weeks between the first and the second dose.
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