2021-10-05 19:10:43 English Schools Drop Mask Mandates, but Questions Rise Along With Cases

English Schools Drop Mask Mandates, but Questions Rise Along With Cases

LONDON: England took a high-risk gamble by returning millions of students to school last month without providing vaccines or requiring them to wear face masks, despite the fact that the coronavirus was still circulating in the population.

The country’s Education Department issued its latest report card on how the plan is working on Tuesday: On Sept. 30, 186,000 students with confirmed or suspected cases of the virus were absent from school, 78 percent more than the number reported on Sept. 16, and the highest number since the pandemic began.

However, according to many parents, the greater risk would have been forcing the students to continue wearing masks or, worse, keeping them at home.

“It’s important for kids,” said Morgane Kargadouris, who was recently picking up her daughter from Notting Hill Preparatory School in northwest London, where no children wear masks. “So much of what they learn is through expressions and interactions with people.”

Such sentiments are not unusual in a country that has ignored social-distancing rules and made an aggressive vaccine rollout and a quick return to normalcy the twin cornerstones of its pandemic response. They do, however, stand out in a debate that has played out differently around the world, as parents struggle to balance the risks of a potentially fatal disease with the costs of keeping children at home or in classrooms where masks and other protective measures are required.

Defenders of England’s laissez faire approach claim that it has allowed the vast majority of students to return to a normal school experience, while critics warn that the children are being exposed to unacceptable risks. With cases rising fastest among those aged 10 to 19, the English instinct to simply “get on with it” is being tested.

Even if few schools have been hit with the kind of outbreak that infects an entire class, the abandonment of masks and other measures — which were required in secondary schools until last spring — has been unsettling for more skeptical parents. To protest the lack of safeguards, a few parents recently launched a social media campaign to pull their children out of school for a day.

“It’s gone from one extreme of fear mongering to nothing,” said Alex Matthew, whose daughter attends London’s Colville Primary School.

The numbers, according to government officials, back up their hands-off approach. Despite the high number of Covid-related absences, 90 percent of the 8.4 million students enrolled in state-supported schools are in class, and the schools are operating at near-normal levels. The vast majority of absences are due to causes other than Covid. It’s also unclear how many, if any, of the cases reported on Sept. 30 were also reported on Sept. 16.

Daily case numbers in the United Kingdom are several thousand lower than when schools opened in early September. This suggests that, due to the widespread availability of vaccines in the adult population, the reopening of schools has not resulted in a significant new surge. And England is not alone among the growing number of countries attempting to cope with the pandemic.

However, critics compare England’s policy to a national chickenpox party. They claim that Long Covid will have long-term effects on a small number of infected children. While the percentage of children hospitalized is small, it adds up to more than 9,000 since the pandemic began — and some of them die.

Furthermore, the government’s positive trends obscure some troubling signs. Infections are increasing rapidly among school-age children, the majority of whom are unprotected because England lags behind other countries in providing vaccines to people under the age of 16. According to epidemiologists, about 1% of people aged 10 to 19 become infected each week.

“It’s quite tense because teachers and school leaders are dealing with so many issues,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents school administrators. “If you send millions of kids back to school,” he predicted, “you will see an increase in cases.”

According to scientists, one reason Britain can take such risks is that nearly all adults over 65 — a high-risk population — have been fully vaccinated, meaning there is less chance they will become infected. The consequences would almost certainly be worse in areas of the United States with much lower vaccination rates.

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English Schools Drop Mask Mandates, but Questions Rise Along With Cases