Should parents have to wear masks on the school site?

Primary schools are urging parents to wear face masks at drop-off and pick-up – but is that supported by the science?
3rd November 2020, 3:30pm


Should parents have to wear masks on the school site?
Coronavirus: Should Primary Schools Ask Parents To Wear Face Masks At Pick-up & Drop-off?

Face masks are now ubiquitous in indoor spaces in the UK. If you have four walls around you, there should be a mask on your face - except for in classrooms, bizarrely (see here why that is an odd decision).

However, it seems that more and more primary schools are requesting that parents wear face masks outdoors, too: at both pick-up and drop-off times. 

For some schools, this has been the case for several weeks (some even from September), but it appears that yesterday the request became much more widespread, as the below Twitter thread demonstrates (click on the tweet to see the thread).

Any primary schools mandating parents wear masks at drop off and pick up?

- Jon Severs (@jon_severs) November 2, 2020

Requesting that parents wear masks in the playground goes beyond the government guidelines for schools, which state that masks should only be worn where social distancing is not possible indoors.

Coronavirus: Guidance for schools on face masks

In areas of high community transmission of the virus, schools have discretion to require people to wear face masks in more indoor situations, but classroom wear is not required (you can read the guidelines here). There are different rules in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

National guidelines for England do not require face masks to be worn in outdoor spaces, either (you can read those guidelines here). Again, there are some differences for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

So why are English primary schools asking parents to put on a mask at drop-off and pick-up times?

Parents and face masks

The request does not appear to have been made by the Department for Education, which has been contacted for comment as to whether it supports the primary school requests (no response as yet).

However, some heads report being asked by local authorities or local public health bodies to make the request. This seems to be based on the fact that some school sites do not easily enable social distancing in the playground or on the school premises.

The majority of heads, though, seem to have taken the decision themselves.

Coronavirus precautions

Some report the need to take every precaution available to ensure that schools can continue to operate.

Others point to the fact that parents congregate in large groups and fail to social distance, so face masks become a necessary extra layer of protection.

And some believe that the presence of masks makes the parents feel that extra bit of security in sending their children to school.

But is there any scientific basis for doing it?

Science and face masks

Yes, says Professor Paul Digard, chair of virology and head of the infection and immunity division at the University of Edinburgh.

"Face masks will still make a positive difference when worn, even outside in well-ventilated areas," he says. "The reason: virus-containing droplets from the respiratory tract of an infected person come in a range of sizes and, large or small, they probably all carry a risk of transmitting the disease.

"Ventilation helps disperse the droplets that form aerosols that float around, but doesn't do so much for blocking the spread of larger droplets that behave ballistically - think of someone sneezing in front of you without covering their face.

"It doesn't matter whether you're indoors or outdoors, you're going to get sprayed. A mask on the sneezer (cougher or even speaker) will stop this very effectively, reducing the risk of transmission."

A natural decision?

And James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union, says that schools may have felt they had little choice following the prime minister's briefing on Saturday.

"Given the tone of the press conference on Saturday evening, and the absence of any further guidance for schools in the subsequent 48 hours, it is hardly surprising that many have started to put their own additional protective measures in place," he says. "Given how hard it is for parents to social distance at drop-off and pick-up, it's understandable that some schools have chosen to take this course of action."

So if you haven't asked parents to do this already, should you?

It's likely a decision you will need to make based on myriad factors, including how staggered your pick-up and drop-off times are, how large your school site is and how far parents are complying with social distancing.

But in the schools where the request has been made, most heads are reporting compliance well above 90 per cent, suggesting that it is something parents are ready to get behind.

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