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The head of Australia’s association for primary school principals says while teachers will support the call for children aged five and up to wear masks, the mental health of young students needs to be prioritised.
On Saturday, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton recommended that primary school-aged children across the state begin wearing masks in both indoor and outdoor settings.
A family in New York City wearing masks. Credit:Getty Images
Current lockdown rules require anyone aged 12 years and over to wear a fitted face mask whenever they leave their home.
Professor Sutton acknowledged it would be “challenging” for very young children to wear masks, but said it would reduce transmission of the Delta variant among kids.
“We’ve seen significant transmission between young children and the over-representation, really, of young children in our current cases,” he said.
“Some kids will do (mask-wearing) well, some kids will absolutely not be able to do it, but as a recommendation: if your child is able to do that, it will help protect them.”
Children under 10 account for around a quarter of the cases in the current Victorian outbreak, COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said, while 44 per cent of positive cases were under 20 years old.
Malcolm Elliott, the head of the Australian Primary Principals Association, said while teachers and school principals would do “everything they could” to support Victorian health authorities, mask wearing at school would prove complex.
For children with disabilities or sensory issues, it could potentially be impossible for them to wear masks at all, he said.
“Whether it’s indoor or outdoors, the younger children are, the less they’ll be able to sustain the wearing of masks,” Mr Elliott said.
Malcolm Elliott said teachers and principals would do everything they could to get young students to wear masks.
“We have got to consider the mental health of children. While it’s a practical instruction … it adds to the uncertainty of the situation because no one is able to say how long they’ll have to wear the masks for.”
Mr Elliott encouraged parents and carers to explain to children why they themselves are wearing masks outside the home, in order to reduce friction in classrooms when in-person learning returns.
The World Health Organisation notes that while children under five should not wear masks, dependent on the ability of children between six and 11 years of age, masks could be important particularly when there is “widespread transmission in the area where the child resides”.
Burnet Institute epidemiologist Professor Michael Toole said the push for primary school-aged children to wear masks made both “epidemiological and symbolic sense”, communicating the seriousness of COVID-19 spread between children.
He said he was in favour of the new recommendation because it added another layer of protection for the community, likening Victoria’s approach to layering multiple slices of Swiss cheese until there were no holes for the virus to penetrate.
“We know now that so many kids are getting infected, and they are infecting their parents and other kids, so it makes logical sense,” he said.
“Each new measure is just like adding another slice of Swiss cheese, and yes, there’ll be holes in it.
“Some kids won’t wear them properly, and others will just find it really difficult. But I’ve seen young kids wearing them in my neighbourhood, and I don’t really foresee it as a problem.”
Premier Daniel Andrews stressed the call for children over five to wear masks was not a legal requirement, but an “advisory”.
The recommendation came on the same day the Victorian government announced that childcare centres would be closed except for the children of essential workers.
“We have got to limit the amount of movement that is occurring that involves our smallest children,” Mr Andrews said.
With Tom Cowie
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