Covid-19: Schools say case numbers shed light on mask approach

Schools say the number of Covid-19 cases will influence their approach to wearing face masks this term.

Photo: 123RF

At the orange light, schools must decide for themselves whether masks are compulsory or optional and this week’s return to school after the April holidays has seen some demanding masks indoors to reduce the spread of Covid-19, while many others just recommend them.

Headmaster of James Cook High School in Auckland, Grant McMillan, said he is retaining a mask mandate and so far all is well.

“We have kept masks for most indoor activities at school and this has been well received by students and the community as well as our staff. Masks are voluntary outside so lunch times, intervals, on the way to school, but even then we still observe well over half of our students, even two-thirds of our students, wearing masks to and from school and around school at the outside.”

The government had been in a difficult position over mask rules when it moved the country to the amber traffic light setting and the school’s decision was primarily based on the wishes of its community, McMillan said.

“If we listen to the medical experts and also the advice from the Department of Education that masks should always be kept in school and used in classrooms, that was an important context for our decision-making, but what drove it was our community preferences and looking after the welfare and well-being of our students and staff.”

At another Auckland secondary school, Otahuhu College, headmaster Neil Watson said many students are wearing masks even though they are not compulsory.

“About half of our students are wearing masks and staff and we’re pretty happy with that. We have a highly vaccinated population and we have an older building so the windows are well ventilated and that. But the main thing is that students and staff take individual responsibility,” he said.

In Christchurch, headmistress of Somerfield Te Kura Wairepo School, Denise Torrey, said masks were strongly recommended but few children wore them.

“You know, three or four kids wearing a mask per space in the senior areas, not so much in the juniors and juniors, we only had a small number anyway because it wasn’t mandatory for them but all of our staff wore masks. Now there are a bit of some staff wearing masks in certain situations and in classes,” she said.

The government likely dropped the mask mandate too soon and her school would be monitoring case numbers and other factors such as classroom air quality very closely, she said.

“We monitor things like our CO2, we monitor the number of cases we have at school, we monitor what is happening in the classrooms.

“That could change very quickly if the number of cases starts to increase in our community, we will certainly look to make a change if we need to.”

At Aberdeen School in Hamilton, principal Lesley Lomas said masks were optional although staff agreed to wear masks in shared spaces.

She expected teachers’ mask-wearing to vary from week to week.

“It may depend on how many cases we have in the school community, it may depend on how the teacher feels about their own well-being. I noticed this week that a number of between them don’t wear them, by choice, and that’s because I think at the end of last term in the heat and everything, they were happy to let them go for a while.”

Lomas has received no complaints from families about the move to optional masking for children 4 and older.

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