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Mask use in schools’ hands now

Last week’s move to the orange traffic light setting did not give school leaders much warning, taking effect just hours after the announcement last Wednesday afternoon.

The new setting meant that while masks would still be encouraged, they were no longer mandatory in schools – a move not all health experts agreed with.

Ahead of the school holidays, Masterton’s St Matthew’s Collegiate School principal Kiri Gill said that her school would be sticking with its current rules to allow the school time to plan, as advised by the Ministry of Health [MoH].

Gill said that the sudden shift was not timed well for schools as it could create “unnecessary changes after a long and busy period”.

“The health and wellbeing of our community are paramount, so maintaining protocols for this additional time as we move to the Easter break and the holidays makes imminent sense,” she said.

Wairarapa College principal Matt White said his school would “make a decision after the MoH has provided further information and guidance”.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins detailed the changes to the traffic light setting last Wednesday afternoon.

Masks would remain mandatory in some settings, including in shops such as supermarkets.

Some principals were surprised that schools were not among the locations where masks were still compulsory.

Without a mandatory requirement, it would be up to individual schools to decide their own mask-use policies.

“At orange, masks remain an important tool to reduce the spread of covid-19, and public health strongly encourages their continued use, and we will most likely do the same at school,” Douglas Park School principal Gareth Sinton said.

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“Mask use has been awesome among the staff and students, and we have plenty of data now to show that mask use has made a real difference in slowing the spread of covid-19.”

Sinton said the school had learnt a lot about ventilation and the power of good hygiene and would continue to use good practices.

“We have tracked the CO2 levels in classes using monitors and know how to keep our learning environments at an optimal level. Students sanitise as they enter school and classrooms and before and after eating food.”

He said the change in traffic light settings meant the school could reintroduce some of its traditions.

“We look forward to reconnecting across the school, having our weekly celebration of learning with all the children and staff, restarting our mixed-age whanau classes on Fridays, and having opportunities again for sports practices with children from across the school.”

Auckland-based community and development paediatrician Dr Jin Russell said masks were “an important layer of the multi-layered approach to reducing the spread of covid-19 in schools” and recommended that schools keep a strong mask-wearing culture while in orange.

“There is an educational, social, and developmental cost to wearing masks.”

“However, this needs to be weighed against the costs of lots of viral illnesses circulating, particularly this winter, which could cause students to miss a lot of in-person school time. Children will have lots of other opportunities for mask-free time when outdoors and outside of schools.”

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