Boris Johnson needs to bring back mask wearing in schools

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Howling outside my bedroom door announced my first positive test (Photo: Emma Reed)

“I have some extra streaks in production – one of the actors stopped with Covid-19! I texted my 11-year-old daughter from school drama rehearsal.

My personal alert system, which has been buzzing quietly since going back to school in September, had ramped up a few weeks ago as cases began to rise at my daughter’s school—and I went into hypervigilance in response to this message. The show should go on, but will it last?

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It became apparent that all Covid-19 had to do was move a finger out of work, and the kids went down like dominoes. But I didn’t really appreciate how that would affect adults.

Many families seem to have been drawn into a game of Covid-19 roulette. While the government’s recent registration appears to be that schools are the epicenter of the recent surge in infections, it appears to be ignoring the detrimental impact of parents now being exposed to the disease. I know because I am one of them.

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The coronavirus was known to be wreaking havoc at school and parents attending school productions were required to wear masks. Reasonable request. hardly imposing. However, when I shook myself, I was shocked because I felt like a stranger.

A quick survey of a crowded, unventilated hall revealed a majority without a mask, laughing in each other’s faces, prone to gossip – far from a covid-free zone.

I was confused. Did I miss my dad’s WhatsApp message about the mask rebellion? During the few hours I was there, I felt as if I had smeared myself with the contents of a Petri dish.

Three days into the show, my daughter woke up complaining about a restless night saying that moving her head hurt. Immediately, we worried she might have caught Covid – not wanting to miss school, she took two lateral flow tests to be sure.

Howling outside my bedroom door announced my first positive test.

Fortunately for her the symptoms were mild: nausea, fatigue and headache. What was even more difficult was keeping her spirits high.

Normally, there were a bunch of social events around this time, and although I wasn’t obligated to self-isolate after having both vaccinations and a negative test over and over, I didn’t feel right.

When I told my friends about the situation, responses ranged from thanking me for being considerate and “yes, please stay away,” to urging me to join them if I’m still testing negative.

Emma Reed with her family standing in front of a river

I immediately had another lateral flow test: positive (Photo: Emma Reed)

I felt it was inconsequential that Covid was in my house, that I was hugging my daughter before she contracted the virus, and yet I was within my rights to sit next to someone in a restaurant or go on public transportation without a mask.

For parents and teachers, going back to school in September has always been a potential flashpoint, but it seems to have fallen off the government’s radar. Blind belief that everyone is going to do the right thing hasn’t done so well lately.

Two days after my daughter tested positive for Covid, my husband and I started feeling sick but were sure we had fallen prey to ‘bitter cold’ – the apathy that seemed to ride happily in the Covid sidecar. We had our second dose of the vaccine in May and came out unscathed from our son’s infection with Covid in July – it should have been.

The same day I started feeling sick, I happened to be interviewing teachers on Zoom who were scattered all over the country for an article I was writing. As I coughed through my questions, I discovered that many of them were in isolation, having been beaten up while Covid was raging in their schools.

As I sat watching Bake Off later that evening, wrapped in multiple layers, trembling uncontrollably—and finding appealing baked goods usually unusually annoying—I got a text message from his daughter’s friend at school with my daughter, who was also out with covid. She and her husband tested positive for what they thought was a “severe cold”.

This ‘cold’ turns out to be covid for us, too. When we got the results of our PCR tests, oddly enough, my test results were negative even though my husband and I had identical symptoms and he tested positive.

I immediately had another lateral flow test: positive. I ordered another PCR test, which came back positive this time.

Then it turned out that many of my friends who had children at school also contracted the virus. Having spent the past eighteen months vigil, rational and immunized, everything was on hold for them.

The general perception that this was limited to children, and that the effects were mild, does not correspond to the reality I was living and hearing about. It seems like it doesn’t really matter what happens to families with their lives on hold, provided the bars stay open. Instead of bringing your kids to their last school project, they’re bringing Covid home.

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For many of us, it’s not just like catching a cold. My husband and I were taken out at the same time and were unable to work for days on end. Unable to work and unable to take care of our children.

Luckily for us, our kids are older and were able to help out and run errands, but I can’t imagine what it would be like for parents with kids or toddlers, no family nearby. We didn’t have the overwhelming fatigue left nearly three weeks after we tested positive. In an effort to try and do something fun for half a semester, my husband took the kids out for a day – but it took him so much that he then had to spend the next day in bed.

By letting Covid make its way through schools, the government does not seem to have thought about its impact on parents and grandparents, and the risks associated with prolonged Covid.

I didn’t enjoy being a part of what feels like a national experience – feeling like we’re consumers while we’re expected to contribute to the economy, looking after the older generation and raising the next. And while the government hesitates again, many are suffering.

The government depends on the people to do the ‘right thing’. But if the parents in the school hall can’t bother to wear the mask, I don’t hold out much hope.

With schools back from recess, it’s time for the government to do the right thing: put back masks and ramp up a vaccination program for children.

At least some take the issue seriously. On Friday I received an email from my son’s school notifying parents that, due to the high number of cases, they are implementing more procedures to return. This includes all pupils who return to wearing masks when moving around the school.

For those students doing GCSES, they will be in a bubble, testing daily and wearing masks in lessons to reduce further disruption.

Having experienced the debilitating effects of Covid firsthand in parallel with my husband, I am amazed at the blasé approach so many have adopted.

In the absence of any clear guidance or action from the government, we need to do the right thing. Parents, if the school asks you to wear masks, the least you can do is comply.

If we remind ourselves of the fiasco of last Christmas, a few actions now can salvage more brutal actions later.

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