Letter to Schools and School Heads

To whom it may concern

Thank you for your time in meeting with us today. As stated, our main concerns are:

  • There are harsher measures for mask wearing in schools than most other work environments, with children having to wear masks for 8 – 15 hours a day especially in boarding house environments, despite children being shown to be low transmitters and only mildly affected and despite the strict measures put in place at schools with health declarations, sanitisation, social distanced seating etc.
  • Mental health concerns have been shown to be a far greater risk for children at this time with extended long term negative consequences for them. The prolonged wearing of masks has been shown in multiple studies (linked below) to exacerbate these mental health issues. There are also multiple other health concerns linked to prolonged mask usage that are also of great concern to us.
  • There are no scientific or research studies on which the mask mandate is based. At best there is no evidence that prolonged mask usage is helpful in curbing the spread of a virus (see below). At worst there are multiple studies and experiments to reflect that it is in fact Who is taking responsibility and liability for these decisions to mask children for hours on end? When does this end? When can we take off our masks? We cannot just keep them on because we are fearful – this is magical thinking, doing something because we “want to believe” it helps and yet there is so science to back it.
  • We realise that government has to change the mask mandate, but schools have a lot more leeway for interpretation as we explore below. Our request is for children to be allowed to take down their masks when seated at their desks as we are allowed to when we sit at restaurants and coffee shops. The medical advisors to the MAC have seen it fit for us to do this – why can children not do this is the classroom?
  • We thank you for taking this seriously. Our children’s lives and health sit in your hands. This is an enormous responsibility – we cannot follow blindly. We have to question. We have to research. We have to do what we can.

Dear School Leader

As discussed, we realise that all schools, and ISASA schools as well, have to follow government directive and protocols. However, many of our schools are following these government protocols over and above what is required in order not to “get into trouble” or even in order not to draw the attention of the DBE. When we look closely at the ‘Standard Operating Procedures for the Containment and management of Covid-19 for schools and school communities’ published by government in September 2020, under point 13 “Wearing a Mask” we see a few important points:

13.3  Schools are encouraged to allow learners and staff the opportunity to take a “face mask break” (5 –15 minutes) every two hours during the school day where they can safely remove their masks outdoors when a distance of at least 1meter from other people is maintained.

13.14  It is strongly recommended that mask-wearing is addressed on a case- by-case basis. Wearing a mask may be more of a risk than a benefit for certain learners. Schools should be advised that the screening, identification, assessment and support (SIAS) process must be followed. The SBST should recommend mask-wearing, in line with the SIAS process to protect educators, non-teaching staff members and learners. If a learner, who has not been wearing a mask, is infected or infects fellow learners, or if other learners’ parents question the concession for a particular learner not being required to wear a mask – there should be a paper trail.

13.15  Educators may need to consult with parents, guardians or caregivers, and use their own knowledge and discretion to ascertain the best practices for mask-wearing, or any other type of face protection, in the classroom or school environment. It is critical to ensure that the learners and their needs are respected, with respect for their human rights.

Up until this point in time, and unfortunately for many of South Africa’s population groups this has only been post 1994, we have had the freedom of body autonomy – we can decide what is put on and in our bodies, and on and in the bodies of our children. This is indeed a basic Human Right that should not be denied to anyone. Health Freedom is a cornerstone to freedom and autonomy. And yet here we find ourselves without health freedom. Up until this point, as parents, we have been able to make conscious and empowered choices for ourselves and our children around birth, breastfeeding, diet, exercise, the support of medical and other health professionals and medications, and so on. Now we find ourselves in a position where we suddenly do not have choice – our children are being told to wear masks for 8, and in the case of boarding, up to 15 hours a day. And we no longer have the freedom to decide whether this is good for their health.

And this therefore begs the question – has the research been done? Can we be absolutely assured that not only are masks effective but they are also extremely safe? And if there is a health issue related to the continuous wearing of masks – who will take ultimate responsibility for this? Will it be government? School governing bodies? The headmaster or headmistress? As mask wearing in school is a rule that is strictly monitored and rigorously applied, it is important to know who takes ultimate liability and accountability for the health of our children.

And so it falls to schools, heads and governing bodies to do the research. Schools are teaching children to be the leaders that we so desperately need in our country and world – to be independent and free thinkers and researchers, to do what’s right even when it’s not easy or comfortable. And we ask the same of you as our school management.

Yes, we may not be able to change the government mandates and protocols at this stage, but we can interpret them for ourselves and our school situations. For it has been shown multiple times, and the South African Paediatric Association has reaffirmed many times, that children are low spreaders and transmitters of Covid-19. And when they do get Covid-19, they mostly have a very mild response to it. Pupils and teachers have been far more at risk of flu in the years gone by – children are far higher spreaders of influenza and they can get it fairly severely and pass it on to teachers, yet we have not adopted these measures in the past to protect children and teachers.  

For many months we have been able to sit in coffee shops and restaurants without our masks. We enter with our masks, have a cursory screening and can then sit for sometimes hours on end next to strangers while we all eat and drink, and the people around us come and go. This situation is far higher risk for community spread. Our children, who are the low spreaders, are all thoroughly screened every day, have to fill in a declaration of health and contact, have their temperatures checked, are sanitised multiple times during the day, desks are spaced a meter apart, have seating plans to sit next to the same children every day and yet they still have to keep their masks on while they sit at their desks. There are very few adults, barring teachers, who are being forced to keep masks on for such extended periods of time.

And so again it is important to come back to the questions – “is mask wearing effective? And is it safe?” One only has to scratch the surface to see that unfortunately there has been a lot of research done over the past 20 years into mask wearing and it is neither safe nor effective.

We can note the press release issues by PANDA (Pandemics – Data and Analysis) on 15 January 2021 which read:

PANDA (Pandemics ~ Data and Analytics) welcomes the recent amendments made to the Disaster Management Act by the Department of Co-operative Governance with regards to the wearing of masks by children under 6 years of age. According to the adjusted regulations, children under the age of 6 are no longer required to wear a face mask. This is aligned with UNICEF and the WHO recommendations. According to the guidelines set out by those global organisations, children under the age of 6 should not be required to wear face masks. In this regard, South Africa went well beyond existing guidelines in previously requiring the masking of children under 6 years old.

It is important to note the WHO guidelines further suggest that the masking of children between 6 and 11 years old should be risk-based, taking into consideration a number of factors, including the “impact of wearing a mask on learning and psychosocial development, in consultation with teachers, parents/caregivers and/or medical providers”. If these considerations are taken into account, then the masking children between 6 and 11 should not be allowed.

As PANDA, we maintain that there is no conclusive scientific evidence that supports the use of cloth masks or medical masks as a means of preventing infection in the general public as a whole, and in children in particular. This is supported by guidance issued by the WHO in December 2020, which states that “At present there is only limited and inconsistent scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of masking of healthy people in the community to prevent infection with respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.”

Furthermore, there is limited data available on the potential harm caused to children’s physical and mental health and socio-emotional development as a result of universal masking. Available studies on masking risks have been conducted only on adults, and for a very short duration of time. There are no available studies on masking over an extended time period, whereas members of the public are often required to wear masks for hours on end. Due to the limited availability of data on the effects of continuous universal masking, mandatory masking of the South African population, particularly South African children, can only be considered highly experimental.

PANDA is committed to evaluating all prior and current research on the effect of masking mandates in preventing the spread of viral diseases and will publish findings in due course.

PANDA therefore approves of the effort by the South African government to put the health and well-being of South African children first. We believe that, given the lack of evidence of benefits to the general population and particularly to children of long-term mask wearing, ultimately ALL mask mandates should end.

We also note the Swiss Policy Research review “Are Face Masks Effective? The Evidence – an overview of the current evidence regarding the effectiveness of face masks”. It looks at a number of studies, randomized controlled trials, meta-analyses, Cochrane reviews and more, and concludes “So far, most studies found little to no evidence for the effectiveness of cloth face masks in the general population, neither as personal protective equipment nor as a source control.”

It also has very interesting graphs reflecting the development of cases after mask mandates (it is important to take a moment to view these) and concludes “In many states, coronavirus infections strongly increased after mask mandates had been introduced. The following charts show the typical examples of Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, the UK, California and Hawaii. Furthermore, a direct comparison between US states with and without mask mandates indicates that mask mandates have made no difference.”

There is also an interesting video by Dr Theodore Noel explaining the facemask aerosol issue and using a vape to assess the permeability of masks – this would be an interesting experiment to be carried out at schools. The visual evidence is very clear that there is no effectiveness in any mask that he tests, to contain the vape particles which are the same size or larger than viral particles.

Finally, at the bottom of the page,  the Swiss Policy review reflect on the risks associated with face masks which are significant and not to be taken lightly. 

The Primary Doctor Medical Journal also released a paper on 7 December 2020 entitled “Proposed mechanisms by which masks increase risk if COVID-19”, also worth reading, and a recent German Mask Study on 25 000 school children involving 363 doctors shows that masks are harming school children physically, psychologically and behaviourally68% of these children reported impairments and 24 distinct health issues associated with wearing masks were revealed.

Finally we encourage you to listen to the interview with Kirsten Meghan and Tammy Clark who are both OSHA and NIOSH certified and specialists trained in PPE and environmental toxicology – they TRAIN infectious disease doctors and epidemiologists in hospitals about pathogen protection. This interview was part of the V-Revealed series by Dr Patrick Gentempo. We recorded the interview and tried to upload it to Nicola’s  website but the file was too large. We will send you a WhatsApp recording of it and really encourage you to listen to the full interview – at 25 minutes it discusses the difference between wearing a mask for 20 minutes and wearing masks for extended periods of time (like in a school environment) as masks have been shown to decrease oxygenation by up to 20% which for anyone, but especially a growing child, is very significant (you can also watch it at this link – email address nicolaaylward@me.com, password Covidresearch, Episode 3 starting at 1hr01).

When we are strictly enforcing mask wearing for 8 – 15 hours a day in a school environment, it is important to be fully aware of the risks and therefore to be prepared to take responsibility for these risks in the children under our care.

We empathise and respect that some parents in the school are fearful of contracting COVID-19 or having a child or grandparent affected by the virus.  And we feel for them.  We also acknowledge that there are those parents who are not fearful, who believe in the strength of the human immune system (where it is not already compromised) and who trust in good nutrition and sanitation for their children and themselves as defence against disease.  We need to stand up for the rights to fresh air for our children and our teachers. We should be sceptical of the government rules and ask if these rules are indeed “right” and also to ask what extent we need to adhere to these rules. We need to think rationally and critically. It has been globally admitted, particularly in the US, that the mask worn in public is a sign of solidarity more than for effectivenessFor the sake of growing, developing children we cannot afford to ignore this.

We also empathise with the school leadership who, above everything, would like the school to remain open and for their learners and teachers to remain healthy; however based on the research discussed above, we need to be careful with the extent to which we enforce mask wearing and alcohol based sanitisation. Even if we have to adhere to government regulation, we need to be cognisant of the negative impact that these measures are having, and will have, on our children and teachers.  A major concern is for mental health in our children and teachers, something often easily overlooked as the signs of stress and depression are not always obvious.  And mental health issues are unfortunately a much higher long term risk for our teenagers these days than the long term effect of a Covid-19 infection on them. We also need to consider the impact on physical health like a lack of fresh air, respiratory problems and a weakening immune system brought on by the extended use of masks and sanitisers.

In a school where education is the primary objective, should we not be looking to scientific evidence to support an interpretation of the government laws?  Should we not also be focusing our message to the children to be hand washing and good nutrition and other ways of building up health? Hand washing has been proven to decrease disease transmission effectively and a strong gut biome has also been proven to provide a strong immune response in the human body.  

We understand that it is probably too difficult for you to stop mask wearing all together right now, but could we not possibly consider a relaxation of the enforcement?  In the UK, where COVID numbers have been higher than in SA, the schools (on the whole) allow children in the Junior School (until 11 years) to go mask free.  In the senior school (until 18 years) children are requested to wear masks when moving between class rooms in the corridors but are allowed (if they choose) to sit at their desks without masks.  This is consistent behaviour with the WHO recommendations as well as our restaurant usage of masks. Could we not introduce similar interpretations for our children without formalising it in writing? Certain South African and Johannesburg schools are taking this approach and allowing learners to take down their masks at their desks. This would be in line with the WHO guidelines of taking a risk-based approach to mask wearing.

In summary, our concerns around mask wearing for our children and teachers for extended periods of time in the day include:

  • Mental health
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Low oxygen levels/ headaches
  • Respiratory issues
  • Moisture in the masks create breeding ground for bacteria and retain it close to the face (evidenced by the recent outbreaks of “macne” – mask acne
  • Limited scientific evidence to support mask wearing as a preventative measure to avoiding viruses in healthy humans

We recognise that the decision to make mask wearing a law is out of your control.  What we believe is in your control is the interpretation of that law.  And we would be grateful if we could re-consider that for the sake of our children’s, their teachers’ and all our long-term physical and mental health. 

We look forward to an open discussion with you and your COVID protocol team once you have had a chance to review some of the research and interviews presented here.

Thank you for all you have done to date in leading our school through this difficult and unprecedented time.

Kind regards

Nicola Aylward (insert your name here)

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