EDUCATION: Making masks mandatory in schools

IT’S been two months since schools gradually reopened but the use of compulsory face masks by students remains a hotly debated topic.

While the Education Ministry’s school reopening management guideline encourages the wearing of face masks, it has not been made compulsory – yet.

An announcement is expected soon, said its minister Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin.

Regardless, many students are turning up in face masks and even face shields, despite it not being mandatory.

On July 22, schools fully reopened for the first time since the movement control order (MCO) was implemented on March 18, with Years One to Four pupils – the youngest in the schooling system – returning to their classrooms.

One school in Kepong saw almost all of its 1,747 pupils in face masks for the entire school day.

Parents, teachers, educationists and the students are divided on whether schools should be exempted from the Aug 1 mandatory mask ruling for those on public transport and in crowded public areas.

Last week, the Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the government was looking into the use of face shields for schoolchildren rather than face masks, as a consideration for families who cannot afford to buy disposable face masks.

It is odd that “crowded public areas” have been defined to include markets, houses of worship, school buses and vans, zoos, sports and recreation centres, clinics and hospitals, retail outlets and cinemas ... but not schools.

This despite the World Health Organisation (WHO) listing schools as a public setting.

Huazong, the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia, is concerned that making it compulsory in public places but not in schools would cause confusion.

The Malaysian Public Health Physicians’ Association has also called for the wearing of face masks for all children above two – except during physical activity, eating or while in a controlled classroom setting – as they are not immune to the disease and might become silent spreaders.

It is a warning echoed by the National Early Childhood Intervention Council.

Students spend most of their time in school and maintaining social distancing when space constraints – particularly where primary and secondary schools are located in the same premises – can be difficult if not impossible.

Describing it as a necessarily measure for the protection and prevention of the disease, parents have taken to social media to call for face masks to be made mandatory.

Globally, France, North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, and parts of the United States, United Kingdom and in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, have already made it compulsory.

We in Malaysia cannot be complacent.

No doubt cost is a consideration especially for the B40, but if parent-teacher associations are willing to step up and work with the ministry, government agencies and NGOs, we can find a way to keep not only some five million students, but society at large, safe.

Surely the cost of prevention will be much cheaper than a “cure” if the country and economy are hit with a second wave.

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