In the long and dreary 20 months that we have been dealing with Covid-19, many people have been willing to put up with a loss of personal freedom because they were persuaded, with the willing help of the media, that it was for the greater good.
But last week’s instruction that children – primary school children aged nine and upwards – would be sent home from school if they came in without a mask, was a step too far for significant numbers of parents.
The backlash, including a protest on Friday at Dáil Éireann attended by thousands of angry families, seemed to take the government by surprise. Now, the Department of Education has moved to revise the dictates which led to such an outcry.
It is a small but significant victory for common sense and for children’s rights, which, in common with so much else, seem to be of secondary consideration in this crisis.
This is a Cabinet which governs by polling and they may have felt on safe ground with re-introducing Covid-19 restrictions and extending their powers to dictate public behaviour. But a government minister ordering schools to send young children home if they came to class without a mask seemed to strike a nerve in parents already at the end of their tether.
As I wrote last week, telling nine-year olds that arrived at school without a mask that they would have to go home seemed more about bullying parents than following the science.
Everything about Covid-19 has become absurdly politicized, but the statement from Minister for Education Norma Foley saying that unmasked children would have to “stand down” seemed ridiculously hostile.
Many parents felt their children were being treated as collateral damage by a government endlessly flailing about to find solutions for their mismanagement of the ongoing Covid crisis.
Families where children are hard of hearing or with special needs were especially upset. One mother of a deaf child, wrote on this platform that “the latest recommendations from NPHET to compulsorily mask primary school children landed like an emotional bomb among parents that have children with additional needs or a disability”.
The anger of parents was no doubt exacerbated when it was confirmed that “developmental and psychological impacts on children were not considered by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) when issuing advice on mask-wearing in schools.”
“The HPSC guidance in relation to masks in schools was issued solely on the basis of international research on Covid-19 infectivity, with no consultation on potential impacts on children’s development and mental health,” the HPSC told the Irish Examiner.
They also revealed that “a separate request sent to the Department of Education revealed that no expert guidance on child development or psychological welfare with regard to teaching staff and students wearing masks was sought there”.
Studies show the crucial importance for children’s development to be able to observe and mirror facial expressions – but parents understand this anyway both by instinct and observation.
That would have sparked the reaction of parents who contacted the National Parents Council in the thousands to complain. (The Journal disgracefully sought to characterise much of the concern as “far-right”.)
At the rally at the Dáil last Friday, parents were furious that the government would seek to punish children because of decisions made by their parents, based on scientific evidence and genuine concern. In much of the online commentary, there was considerable anger at government overreach, at an attempt to control parents.
One twelve-year old wrote that the decision was “made with fear”. “At the end of one school day I forgot my fellow students’ faces. I refused to wear a mask and I felt socially isolated,” he said.
School principals also publicly expressed their opposition to both the masking requirement and the order to send young children home. The Headmaster of Castle Park School wrote that he had “deep concerns about the safe and effective use of masks for young children.”
“They pose a negative impact on children’s social and emotional development and interfere with the actual process of teaching and learning,” he said. “In particular, they will have an adverse impact on children who have speech and language difficulties or for other reasons would find mask wearing a stressful occurrence.”
According to the parents I’ve spoken to, many other principals also quietly let parents know that no child would be forced home because they were not wearing a mask.
In the face of growing anger, the Department of Education has reversed its controversial order. A letter issued this morning has advised schools that in relation to mask wearing “it is not intended that any child will be excluded from a school in the first instance”.
The reversal will be welcomed, but I suspect the high-handed, bullying attitude of the government towards already over-stretched and upset parents will not be forgotten.