Dr Andrew Dickson: Masks in schools – Government must protect vulnerable kids

OPINION:

As kids prepare to go back to school for the start of the second term, more than 150 doctors and scientists have backed a fresh plea to keep a classroom mask mandate in place over the winter. The Government has loosened restrictions and moved the country to orange, where face masks are encouraged but not required in schools. But the group of experts are concerned Kiwis are now vulnerable to a second wave just as the colder months set in. One of the signatories to the open letter calling for a Vaccines Plus strategy, is Dr Andrew Dickson, whose son is immunocompromised, and is calling for the simple measure of face masks to be reinstated over the winter to help all our children.

Immunocompromised. Vulnerable. Pre-existing condition. Just three ways “the able” seek shelter from the threat. It is so predictable. We have an innate reaction to threat, we need to push it away, to make it not relevant to me. “I’m not worried about myself, but I am worried about [insert vulnerable person]”. Many of you have said it.

My daughter is not vulnerable. She had my phone when the notification came through that two kids under 9 had died from Covid (I know, I know – you want me to say “with Covid” – you’re still seeking shelter, see above). She said, “wait, what?” “I thought you said kids were going to be okay Dad?”. Important parenting moment. “Not all kids Lizzie” I said, “but most of them will be … mostly okay”. Lizzie looked concerned. I am concerned. I didn’t mention Long Covid.

We’re concerned because of her brother, Ben. “I’m not worried about myself, but I am worried about Ben.” Ben is in the vulnerable disabled community. Poor kid suffered a brain injury during his birth, it’s a long complicated story. He has cerebral palsy, and is neurodiverse, and has asthma, and more than one autoimmune disease.

Ben hasn’t been at school for weeks, he’s learning from home. So is Lizzie. We’re lucky because my employer supports me to look after my disabled child, to keep him safe. And his school supports him to stay safe too. No one wants Ben to get Covid. I’d hazard a guess that even the “herd immunity” fantasy crew don’t want to see a disabled child on a ventilator.

Term two was going to be when Ben and Lizzie could get back to school. They want to; so do we. We’d purchased CO2 monitors for their classrooms. I’d built Corsi-Rosenthal boxes to scrub the air, because there is no mechanical ventilation (just open a window or two!). I’d even offered to run a session on viral transmission for the whole teaching faculty.

But the Government torpedoed it. Without warning, with no expert consensus, they flipped to orange and masks in schools were gone. The day before the holidays. And now cases are trending up again. Winter is looking horrible.

It is such a simple thing. A face covering during higher-risk interactions. Even Ben, my awesome disabled kid, wears a mask. He seriously struggles with it. But he gets it, and does it, and doesn’t complain. Kids are not dumb.

There is no point arguing about whether masks work or not. They do. They are an extremely effective, very cheap public health mechanism to reduce the spread of airborne pathogens. We don’t need kids to wear them all the time. No outside playground masking. But we need them to wear them in enclosed classrooms. At least until we get a handle on ventilation. At least through the coming winter.

Can the Government be agile enough to bring back masks in schools for term two to protect all children and their whānau, but more particularly the disabled community?

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