COVID in the classroom

Hands throwing up masks in the air
Mask restrictions are set to end in WA on Friday. Photo: Charlie Mills.

With mask mandates set to be eased across Western Australia on Friday, some teachers remain concerned about the risk of COVID-19 in the classroom.

WA is the last state with public mask-wearing in Australia, but other states have continued to require masks in certain settings, including in schools.

Both the South Australian and Tasmanian governments have mandated the wearing of masks in primary and secondary schools, and some interstate universities have continued to mandate mask wearing.

State School Teachers Union of WA president Pat Byrne says teachers are still worried about COVID-19 in the classroom.

“Many teachers and other school staff have expressed concern about the level of exposure in classrooms, with thousands of teachers and students having been required to isolate during term one,” Ms Byrne says.

“With the numbers of community infections still comparatively high, many immuno-compromised principals
and teachers, or those caring for at-risk family members, are extremely concerned for their safety.

“For those reasons we advise school staff who do not feel safe to continue to wear masks at work.”

Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia executive director Valerie Gould says masks have been very effective in limiting the spread of COVID-19, and students have generally complied with restrictions.

“In the majority of schools, it’s been fairly smooth-going,” Ms Gould says.

Valerie Gould
SSTUWA president Valerie Gould says some staff will continue wearing masks. Photo: Charlie Mills.

She says some schools could potentially mandate their own mask requirements.

Ms Gould also says some schools brought in their own mask mandates even before requirements came into place for primary-aged children.

“There were some schools in the sector, and not just in our sector that mandated masks for primaries, and before it was mandated by the government, because they decided it was better for health outcomes.”

High school English teacher Dr Jeannette Weeda says it hasn’t been difficult to keep her students wearing masks, and she’s grateful for the protection they’ve offered in the past few months.

Dr Jeannette Weeda in her classroom
Dr Jeannette Weeda says she may continue to wear a mask in her classroom. Photo: Charlie Mills.

“Students have generally pretty good about wearing masks, occasionally we’ll have to remind them, but there haven’t been many issues,” she says.

“It’s thanks to the media health professionals and the government that students are well informed on the benefits of masks and the dangers of COVID.

“I will most likely keep my mask on, especially for the next few weeks while COVID numbers are still quite high.  I’m sure, some students, especially those with underlying health conditions, will continue to wear them.”

Dr Weeda says if the government or her school decided to keep mask restrictions in place at school, she would support those measures.

“Masks, or any face coverings, are going to protect students and staff from getting COVID.”

With universities also at risk, National Tertiary Education Union WA division secretary Catherine Moore says some university staff will also be considering to continue to wear masks past Friday.

“University staff will continue to make sensible choices about wearing masks, choices that take into consideration their own health and the safety of their students and colleagues.”

In the eastern states, some universities have kept mask mandates in force even after government restrictions have ended, including ANU in Canberra.

In an official statement on their website, ANU says: “We know that masks help stop the spread of COVID and make our community safer – and we want the campus to be the most COVID safe place it can be.”

Ms Moore says any decision needs to be made in consultation with university staff.

She stresses that before something as serious as a mask restriction is put into place, universities should consider other options such as offering paid pandemic leave, improving ventilation and filtration or providing free RATs to staff.