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Students don’t have to wear masks anymore – but did they ever?

A face mask on a chair in an empty school classroom
Face masks in schools weren't as mandatory as we thought.

Local authorities have revealed that there were no punishments for students who didn’t wear a face mask in school.

Instead, schools simply reminded students of the health and safety guidance and encouraged them to follow it. That’s because wearing a mask in Scottish schools was non-statutory guidance and not a legal requirement.

Councils and teachers said that noncompliance was never enough of an issue to require punishments.

That lack of consequence might suggest that students had a choice. But that wasn’t the impression of students, parents or those of us on the outside.

Students tend to see school policies as non-negotiable, without quibbling over semantics.

The head of a parents’ group that long opposed masking said that students felt so coerced into compliance that punishments were irrelevant.

We’ll tell you what the councils had to say. But students at different schools don’t always have the same experience, and we want to know what it was like at your school.

What’s a requirement and what’s guidance?

The recent announcement that schools could drop their mask requirements triggered some confusion among parents.

On April 18, the Scottish Government said it was ending all legal requirements for face masks.

But most councils stuck to the terminology that they had used throughout the pandemic. They said they would encourage–but not require–students to wear masks.

So that raised the question: Did schools ever require students to wear face masks?

Students supported, not punished

A spokesman for the Western Isles Council said that schools had very few issues with students not wearing masks and put no consequences in place.

A Moray Council spokesman said that schools encouraged students to wear face masks, and issued reminders to those who didn’t.

Face masks on students in a school hallway

He said that schools were following guidance from the Scottish Government.

“The guidance made it clear that pupils were not to be sanctioned in any way for not adhering to guidance and that each school continued to support and encourage agreed processes.”

Government guidance has since been updated to reflect changes in the nation’s Covid policies.

But a Scottish Government spokeswoman confirmed that the government never imposed punishments for students not wearing masks.

“It is for schools to decide how they manage any issues around non-compliance.”

An Aberdeen City Council spokeswoman said there were no consequences in city schools. Instead, they reminded students about the national guidance.

One Aberdeenshire head teacher said that her school had no breaches of Covid restrictions. The majority of students followed mask guidance, she said.

“In school, we would not issue a consequence for this. Actually, most pupils were very ‘compliant’ about it.”

Students had a complicated relationship with masks

Some students who spoke to us said that they and their classmates had come to feel safer with their masks on. Even with the difficulties they created, masks formed a sort of social buffer that helped them through the day.

Still, many were happy to see the policy come to an end.

Despite most councils saying that students were content to follow the rules, it isn’t always easy to distinguish between requirements and suggestions in schools.

The power dynamics between students and teachers can make the differences between laws, policies and guidance murky at best.

Compliance or coercion?

Parent group UFTScotland advocated against masks in schools throughout the pandemic. They argued that they were detrimental to learning, mental health and social development.

Jo Bisset, organiser for UFTScotland
Jo Bisset, organiser for UFTScotland.

Jo Bisset, organiser for UFTScotland, said that freedom from consequence didn’t mean freedom of choice.

“It was never a legal requirement, it was always what they would call guidance. But the way in which schools treated the mask policy was as if it were a legal requirement.

“If you asked most parents and pupils, they would have thought it was a legal requirement.”

She added: “Schools have become Covid coercive environments.”

Was there a choice about face masks in your school?

Masks were a critical and controversial aspect of Scotland’s Covid response from the start of the pandemic.

So with councils saying that school mask policies were never legal requirements, we want to know what your child’s experience was like.

Read more from the Schools & Family team

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Emerging from the pandemic: Will school ever be the same again?

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