SA's children must wear masks in school despite new WHO guidelines
All children attending South African schools have to wear masks despite the World Health Organisation's new guidelines.
The global health authority released guidelines at the weekend stating that children under the age of five should not wear masks while those aged between six and 11 should wear masks only in exceptional circumstances.
However, the department of basic education is sticking by its rule that all children in schools must wear masks.
“We are not changing anything in schools. We continue with plans to have all learners wearing masks. We want to do everything we can to keep our learners safe. We have already spent money on masks for all learners so we will ensure these are used,” said departmental spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga on Wednesday.
The WHO and the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) advise that the decision to use masks for children aged six to 11 should depend on how widespread the transmission of the virus is and whether the child is interacting with high-risk individuals such as the elderly, and if there is adult supervision to put on and take off the masks safely.
The guidelines were formulated by an international and multidisciplinary expert group brought together by the WHO to review evidence on Covid-19 infection and transmission in children and the limited available evidence on the use of masks by children.
The expert group also considered children's psychosocial needs and developmental milestones in formulating the guidelines.
The guidelines advise that children aged 12 and older should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.
Children aged five years and under should not be required to wear masks.
“This advice is based on the safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance. There may be local requirements for children aged five years and under to wear masks, or specific needs in some settings, such as being physically close to someone who is ill. In these circumstances, if the child wears a mask, a parent or other guardian should be within direct line of sight to supervise the safe use of the mask.”
The WHO said children in general good health can wear a non-medical or fabric mask.
“This provides source control, meaning it keeps the virus from being transmitted to others if they are infected and are not aware that they are infected. The adult who is providing the mask should ensure the fabric mask is the correct size and sufficiently covers the nose, mouth and chin of the child.”
“Children with underlying health conditions such as cystic fibrosis, cancer or immunosuppression, should, in consultation with their medical providers, wear a medical mask. A medical mask controls spreading of the virus and protection to the wearer, and is recommended for anyone who is at higher risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19.”
The global health body said some children may not be able to wear a mask due to disabilities or specific situations such as speech classes where the teacher needs to see their mouths.
“In these cases, face shields may be considered an alternative to masks, but they do not provide the equivalent protection in keeping the virus from being transmitted to others. If a decision is made to use a face shield, it should cover the entire face, wrap around the sides of the face and extend to below the chin. Caution should be taken while wearing one to avoid injuries that could break it and harm the eyes or face.”
Children should not wear a mask when playing sports or doing physical activities, such as running, jumping or playing on the playground, so that it does not compromise their breathing.
“When organising these activities for children, it is important to encourage all other critical public health measures: maintaining at least a 1m distance from others, limiting the number of children playing together, providing hand-hygiene facilities and encouraging their use.”