When secondary school pupils return to class they will continue to spend hours each day wearing face masks.
The requirement for face coverings to be worn in Scotland’s classrooms for S1 to S6 youngsters will remain for at least the first six weeks of the new term.
For teenagers like Layla Cooke it will mean a continued struggle to communicate with peers and teachers and more anxiety.
Layla, 15, found the last year of education during the pandemic so distressing she decided to leave school at the end of fourth year.
The former Auchmuty High School pupil, who lives in Windygates, Fife, started to lose her hearing at the age of five and suffers from anxiety.
She told us: “People like me need to be able to lip read and read body language to clarify what is being said, and that is hard with face masks.”
Face coverings can discourage young people from interacting with others when they struggle to hear or make themselves heard, she said, and hinder those who use breathing techniques to control anxiety.
She said: “It’s very isolating, you miss out on conversations all the time. You end up withdrawing into yourself because you’re worried about missing what is said.”
Layla, who raises awareness of British Sign Language through her social media channels BSLCooke, still faces wearing a mask when she starts at Fife College next month.
There were more than 1,200 deaf pupils in Tayside and Fife schools in 2019, according to the most recent data obtained by Deaf Action.
The impact of masks on deaf schoolchildren is a huge concern to the charity which has campaigned for greater use of clear masks.
Spokeswoman Fiona Lavender said deaf people rely heavily on facial cues and body language in conversation and schoolchildren had found communicating with teachers and peers wearing masks mentally exhausting.
Schoolchildren, she said, had expressed worries about being cut off from hearing friends.
If MSPs think it is right that children should spend eight hours a day in a mask, then they should do the same.”
Jo Bisset, UFTScotland
She said: “We do appreciate there’s a safety element around them and a lot of people, hearing and deaf, do feel more comfortable wearing masks, that’s why we started campaigning for clear masks.
“The clear message from us is we really want schools to keep the the lines of communication open with deaf pupils and their families.”
Parents campaign group UFTScotland – previously called UsForThem Scotland – has challenged those MSPs who support the rule to try wearing a face covering throughout their working day.
It said secondary school children will spend more time in masks than almost any other group of people in Scotland.
Jo Bisset, organiser, said: “If MSPs think it is right that children should spend eight hours a day in a mask, then they should do the same.”
Pupils in England, she said, ditched masks in May without any apparent Covid-related problems.
She added: “Until the mask mandate in classrooms is removed, children will not be able to enjoy that sense of normality again.”
Keeping masks in the classroom for now is the right decision, according to Scotland’s largest teaching union.
Welcoming retention of much of last year’s mitigation measures, EIS assistant secretary David Belsey said: “We agree the continued wearing of face masks, physical distancing measures, effective ventilation of classrooms and good hygiene regimes need to remain in full force.”
He said the six-week continuation of the measures, including face coverings, will “provide a degree of reassurance” to school staff returning to week over the next couple of weeks, and time for meaningful consultation on any changes.
I’m acutely aware that many, many young people find this difficult – and it will be kept under review.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Announcing the continued requirement for face coverings on Tuesday First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the decision had been taken after “careful consideration”.
She said: “I’m acutely aware that many, many young people find this difficult – and it will be kept under review.
“But for now, we consider this an important protection for them, and for others in the school.”
Impact assessment reports published by the Scottish Government on Thursday state continued use of face coverings will help reduce transmission of Covid-19 within schools while the impact of the new school year is monitored and the last teachers to be vaccinated get their second doses.
However, they recognise the negative impact on pupils who are deaf, hard of hearing, have additional support needs or whose first language is not English.
Face mask requirement review
They also say that while some pupils find wearing face masks for long periods uncomfortable others may be nervous about their removal from the classroom.
Scottish Government guidance on reducing the risks in schools states that mitigation measures including face masks in secondary school classrooms will be retained for up to six weeks then contingent on further advice.
It says: “Mitigations will be kept under constant review, and if data and evidence suggest that any specific mitigations can be removed at an earlier stage advice will be provided to that effect.
“Particular attention will be paid to whether there is an ongoing requirement for face coverings in classrooms.”