While some states, such as NSW, dropped mask mandates in late February, others such as Western Australia have seen secondary students wearing masks for all of Term 1 and into Term 2. After wearing them for the entire school year, it is understandable that some students are responding to the removal of masks with a range of reactions including anxiety.
“I feel it is just too soon,” one Year 7 student from Western Australia stated. “I think once masks are off, people will just feel like it is back to normal and they don’t have to do anything. But they still need to be careful,” she added.
Another student from Western Australia, a Year 10, admitted that he would continue wearing a mask “because I don’t trust people at school not to catch COVID.”
Educator Linda Stade explains it is perfectly natural for some children to feel anxious about the end of the mask mandate. “For two years we have been directly and indirectly saying that we need to keep them safe. They are completely aware of the fear that has existed about their health and wellbeing. Now we are saying, it’s okay, you don’t need that protection anymore.”
For younger children, the uncertainty around the change can be damaging. One mother of a ten-year-old boy reported: “the anxiety just crippled him and it was devastating to watch. It was impossible to go anywhere without having the TV or radio reporting on how borders were opening and that we were going to get flooded with Covid-19.”
In Western Australia in particular, which remained locked behind closed borders for 696 days, the mask relaxation may seem overwhelming for young children.
“Two years of a pandemic is a long time in anybody’s language,” says Linda Stade. “However, if you are only eight, that’s a quarter of your life. Of course, this will seem like a big change for some kids.”
Therefore, despite the changes to the rules, many staff and students are choosing to continue wearing masks, and the reasons aren’t always related to the fear of catching COVID.
“I feel more self-conscious now,” one Year 10 student from NSW reported. “I’m not used to having all of my face exposed. I’ve become aware of people really seeing my face; something I wasn’t really aware of before,” he added.
Another Year 10 student from Western Australia, agreed. She would be continuing to wear masks indoors and outdoors at school and at her workplace due to the anonymity it provided.
Linda warns that anxiety may not always be immediately recognised as such. Schools may instead notice changes in behaviour such as withdrawal or acting out. Younger children may present with a sore tummy or a reluctance to engage in activities they would normally enjoy.
Her advice to teachers as the new term progresses is to listen to children and acknowledge their concerns about being maskless. “If a child is anxious, please don’t tell them not to be silly. Be realistic with them. There is still a small chance they may get sick, but vaccinations are making us safer and the peak of the pandemic has passed.”
Encourage children to be respectful of each others’ decisions, whether they choose to wear masks or not.
Avoid judgemental language, irrespective of your own views.
Acknowledge it takes time for people to feel comfortable in the new, maskless environment, and that some students will feel they have even less control than they usually have.
Linda states: “in the end, let kids decide. If they want to keep wearing a mask, let them. They will take it off when they are ready.”
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