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Investigation

Doctors, parents, psychologists … What do Monegasques think about compulsory masks at school?

Protocole sanitaire dans les écoles
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The compulsory wearing of masks is a sensitive subject that has given rise to much debate, including in the National Council. An exception was granted recently for sports lessons, at the request of parents, but masks are still mandatory in the classroom and in the playground.  These two points are to be debated soon, while France has just announced the return of compulsory masks at school in 40 departments from November 8.  

We are making [the children] shoulder all the responsibility for COVID”. Parents and readers of the Monaco Tribune are in agreement: making  masks compulsory for young children is an issue, especially when adults are allowed to take them off.

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A measure deemed to be inconsistent

Some parents point out the inconsistency of the requirement, like one Internet user who told us, not without irony: “I think we should replace the pupils’ desks with restaurant or bar tables. That way, they could take off their masks.”

Inconsistencies aside, there is a fear of the consequences.  One mother commented on Facebook: “How can a kindergarten child understand a teacher who’s wearing a mask?  How do they develop their global language, i.e. facial expressions, information we convey without speaking?”

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Another mother also shared her concerns with us by email: My son really struggles to wear one all day and is constantly being told off for the way he wears it.  It would be good for everyone to get back to their rightful place.  Children: being carefree, experiencing the joy of living, social bonding, Teachers: just getting on with teaching and not having to play cop all day.”

A high school teacher concurred, having observed  “that it’s much more difficult for the students to communicate and concentrate.  Some young people have trouble projecting their voices, because of the mask, forcing teachers to reduce the ambient noise by closing the windows, “when we should be letting air circulate in the classrooms!”

Children are better at adapting than adults

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Camilla Barbini – psychologist

What is the impact on learning?

The question of learning, especially in young children, is now a talking point among parents and teachers. Can the mask have an impact on socialisation, but also on the way in which children learn to express themselves?

For Camilla Barbini, psychologist at Beausoleil, specialising in the treatment of anxiety and the management of emotions in children, the health crisis and wearing a mask may well have triggered some anxiety in certain young patients. “By hiding part of the face, for example, we mask certain expressions, and communication can be affected.”

However, she reassures us that this state of anxiety is unlikely to be permanent. “Children can be better at adapting than adults, they have a lot of resources and they don’t put up some of the barriers that adults do.  And in cases where signs of anxiety do persist, there are potential solutions, such as EMDR psychotherapy.

Similarly, children in the acquisition phase, in particular language acquisition, are affected by compulsory mask wearing, but again all is not lost! For Camilla Barbini, new learning strategies could make it possible to compensate for any potential difficulties.

The psychologist advises parents to talk a lot with their children about the health crisis and to support them at home through play activities.

She also recommends that schools adapt by using transparent masks or by working in small groups, to allow for a brief respite from mask wearing, so that the children can learn in complete safety.

The mask’s consequences are not the ones parents fear

Doctor Hervé Haas – pediatrician at the CHPG

Is the children’s health at risk?

Another subject of concern for parents: the consequences on their children’s physical health. Headaches, infections or other lung diseases: some families fear the effects of wearing a mask as much as Covid itself. For Doctor Hervé Haas, pediatrician at the CHPG, there is nothing to fear, at least on this aspect.

According to the practitioner, “the consequences of the mask are not the ones parents fear.  Again, it is the anxiety disorders or learning difficulties mentioned above that are at the heart of health professionals’ concerns.

Doctor Robino, member of the National Council, also adds that the new vulnerability of children to diseases and infections is not linked to the mask itself but to confinement: “many young people haven’t contracted seasonal viruses, resulting in lower immunity.”

The doctor also stressed the main purpose of wearing a mask, namely to put an end to the health crisis: “the less the virus circulates, the lower the risk of removing the mask (…) People need to remember that the virus is still around. We have to exercise cautionl and if we want the crisis to be over, we can’t rush things.”

Exercising caution is equally the Prince’s Government’s position. “These measures have proved their effectiveness throughout the past school year: all pupils were able to attend in the classroom and no Covid-19 related school closures were announced”, a member of the Monegasque national education service stated in April.

The recent example of the United Kingdom shows that prematurely removing masks in schools can lead to complications.  Some British schools are calling for maks to be brought back, given the sudden increase in absences due to Covid-19 infection. According to the BBC, 9,000 English pupils have been affected by the virus in the two weeks since the start of the school year alone, bringing the total absences due to Covid to 209 000.

So what can be done? For Doctor Haas, masks are effective against the virus, but only in the case of intense viral circulation. A good compromise, in his opinion, would be to abolish mandatory masks for children under six, because the risk of contagion is thought to be lower.

For older children, aged six to eleven, the pediatrician is more cautious, but because of the low transmission rate between children, he recommends more stringent protective measures that would make it possible to remove masks until high school age.

There are solutions, and they are feasible, but they are not being put in place and that’s a real shame

Alternative solutions?

For both the medical profession and parents, it’s not about getting rid of the masks ‘willy nilly’.  Some parents suggest alternative solutions, like this Internet user: “Are you aware that there are very efficient air purifiers? The same ones that are used in TV studios…”

A comment echoed by this mother: “there are solutions, and they are feasible (spacing out desks, air purifiers, airing the classrooms…) but they are not being put in place and that’s a real shame.”

These alternative solutions could help appease anxious parents. The Association of Parents of Students of Monaco (APEM – schoolchildren’s parents organisation) has also received many reports from concerned families.  The President, Mrs. Gebel, tells us that parents say “that more and more children can’t put up with the mask any longer, they were it under their nose, and these children are punished: with frequent  detentions, for example.

According to her, the parents’ main request is that masks be removed during recess: “they feel it would provide a little break in the day.  Bear in mind that some children can be at school from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.! (…)  The parents think that children are less contagious and that the virus spreads less outdoors, so they wonder why the masks need to stay on.”

Getting rid of masks in schools is possible provided that very strict measures are observed.

Doctor Robino – Nephrologist and member of the National Council

On this particular point, Dr Robino adds some perspective: “Covid is thought to be less serious in children, but heart complications and extremely inflammatory diseases have occurred in very young children [who had contracted Covid].  It is important not to completely underestimate the virus, especially given that children under the age of twelve are not vaccinated.”

On the other hand, on the recess question, the doctor is inclined to agree. “If you’re outdoors, it’s less of a problem, because you’re in a well-ventilated area.(…) Getting rid of masks in schools is possible provided that very strict measures are observed, such as weekly tests.”

And while the Principality is about to revisit the question of removing the requirement, France is backtracking. As of Monday 8 November, the first day of school after the half-term break, 40 départements who had lifted the requirement, have made masks compulsory in primary schools again.

As for the Alpes-Maritimes, the system is unchanged because, according to the covidtracker website,  the incidence rate is above the alert threshold of 50 cases per 100 000 inhabitants.