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Masks in school: A barrier for some pupils – but a shield for others

Harvey Walker from Stromness discusses the end of masks in schools.
Harvey Walker, Stromness Academy S6, said that getting rid of masks will require its own transition period for students. Supplied by Orkney Islands Council.

Harvey Walker can’t count the number of times he’s rummaged through his rucksack at the bus stop, afraid that he left his mask at home.

The Stromness Academy S6 student is happy that those moments of panic are now behind him. But he also knows that masks have become an integral part of social life for him and his classmates.

Anxieties and social pressures that masks helped some students hide will be back out in the open. And concerns about infecting loved ones will continue to be a reality.

Councils in the north and north-east have promised to support students who wish to continue wearing a mask for safety reasons.

But it will be up to the students themselves to adjust to the return to normal.

Numerous times recently, I’ve looked at the people I’ve been friends with for years and seen them as unrecognisable.”

Stromness Academy S6 Harvey Walker

Masks in schools as a way of blending in

Schools across Scotland had their first maskless day of classes on Monday. Students still have to wear masks in hallways and common areas, but they can ditch them in class.

But not everyone is equally thrilled to see mask rules change.

Just like when they were introduced, removing masks brings its own questions. And it will put young people through another period of adjustment.

In addition to their safety benefits, masks became part of the social landscape in schools. They helped many students meet an underlying need to fit in, Harvey said.

“The need to fit in is even more apparent in teenagers who ‘just don’t want to stand out’ as much as possible. Masks help people blend in.

“Numerous times recently, I’ve looked at the people I’ve been friends with for years and seen them as unrecognisable.”

It’s all in the eyes… or is it?

But that ability to blend in didn’t come without pitfalls. Students might need to readjust to the idea of standing out because there are social advantages to unmasking.

Harvey said that he’s looking forward to connecting more with classmates and teachers.

A face mask left on a school desk.
Students can have their face masks off at school while in the classroom. Picture: Shutterstock.

“I’ve started to find it really difficult to read people’s emotions. You can’t tell if someone’s upset, confused, or angry.

“They say someone’s eyes can tell a story about how they’re feeling, poetic as that sounds.

“The reality is, it’s very hard to gauge someone’s emotions when your only reference point is from the eyes up.

“It would seem that insecurity is becoming a pandemic in itself, especially for teenagers. Masks have been some people’s shield against their insecurity.”

Are masks in schools gone for good?

And even as we lose the in-school mask mandate, Harvey wonders if we’ll ever see the end of them.

“The government will say it’s optional, but they seem to have become so ingrained into people’s everyday life that I believe some people will always continue to wear them.

“For myself, I don’t really mind if they stay or if they go. I’ve always worn mine, but in the end, I suppose I won’t be sad to see them leave – or having to remember I need to have one every day in my pocket.”

Caution is still the name of the game

Councils across the north and north-east also said they would support any student who wished to continue wearing a face covering.

Ahead of the changing rules, Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville urged caution. She asked students and teachers to remain vigilant and follow the remaining guidelines to keep the virus under control.

In Harvey’s Orkney community, community cases and school absences have been on the rise recently. James Wylie, director of education, leisure and housing for the council, said that the islands are behind the mainland timeline when it comes to the spread of Covid-19.

Orkney education boss discusses the end of masks in schools
James Wylie urged students to be aware of all other safety precautions even as the mask mandate is lifted. Supplied by Orkney Islands Council

He asked students and parents to exercise caution as the mask mandate is lifted, and recognised that everyone will have a different reaction.

“Whilst this announcement is encouraging in terms of reducing barriers to communication in the classroom, for example, the move may be a source of anxiety for others.

“It is important that pupils and staff have the right to continue to wear face coverings if they wish to.”

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