Covid-19: Children happy to play their part on mask-wearing, professor says

Prof Pat Dolan says many have forgotten children can make their own choices

Children will play their part in the public health efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19, Prof Pat Dolan of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway has said.

However, he said he had been annoyed over the last few days, following the introduction of the Government rule that all older primary school children (from third class upwards) must wear face masks in public indoor settings, that so many had forgotten children have the capacity to make their own choices.

“Children are not objects. They are very happy to play their part if it is presented to them as playing their part,” said Prof Dolan, though he was concerned that some children could be “labelled” if they are excused from wearing masks.

Hospital Report

The culture in individual schools will determine the impact of the new restrictions recommended by the National Public Health Emergency Team that were quickly turned into a Department of Education rule.

So far, despite the hyperbole, the vast majority of children have worn masks, though the National Parents Council (NPC) and Parentline both reported unprecedented levels of contact about the issue.

Parentline chief executive Aileen Hickie told The Irish Times that despite callers being worried, some angry, they were willing to "impose it on their kids" if that is what it takes to keep schools open.

“We don’t know if there is any developmental impact to do with mask-wearing. We do know there is a developmental impact with not going to a physical school because of the lack of social interaction,” she said.

State intervention

Schools are doing their best, said NPC chief executive Áine Lynch. “To say a 10-year-old who turns up at school without a mask has no right to education is a very significant State intervention.”

The situation was not helped by confusing messaging. Initially, Minister for Education Norma Foley said children would be refused entry without a mask unless they had a medical certificate, but this quickly softened.

Within a few sentences, the Department of Education acknowledged that schools “will be best placed” to identify children who cannot wear masks, in which case a medical cert might not be required.

“What principal is going to turn away a child,” said the head of one Dublin primary school, which fostered a positive approach among children, and practically all parents co-operated .

However, some have doubts. The last thing primary school children need is another barrier to socio-emotional communication, said child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor of University College Dublin.

Although he acknowledged that he could not prove it, he said he believed that mask-wearing would be yet another contributing factor to the “stunting” of children’s development.

The biggest, long-term effect of the pandemic had been the “cryogenic freezing” of children’s socio-emotional growth, leaving their developmental age out of sync with their actual age, he said.