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“Drop the masks!”: UAE parents demand end to Covid 19 face masks mandate for UAE schoolchildren. KHDA responds. Exclusive

“Drop the masks!”: UAE parents demand end to Covid 19 face masks mandate for UAE schoolchildren. KHDA responds. Exclusive

by Tabitha BardaAugust 16, 2022

UAE parents are taking to social media to demand that Dubai’s schools lift the face masks mandate for the new 2022/23 academic year.

At present the school safety protocol from March 2022 still stands, which means that all children from Year 2/ Grade 1 and above will still be required to wear face masks while indoors when they return to school at the end of this month.

Many UAE parents are arguing that this rule is unfair and unnecessary, with multiple comments on the social media account of the Dubai school regulator, the KHDA, using the hashtag “#dropthemasks”, and some calling the practice “cruel” and “harmful for kids’ physical and mental health”.

Some impassioned mums and dads have even voiced their intention to move their children back to their home countries if the mask mandate persists in UAE schools into the 2022/2023 academic year.

But is this just the vocal minority? Would most parents prefer that children still wear face masks while we continue to grapple with Covid and possible new strains going into the winter term? SchoolsCompared spoke to parents, experts, and, exclusively, to the KHDA to find out.

“We’ve stolen enough of their childhood”

As families return from their summer travels in countries abroad – many of which no longer have mask mandates of any kind – parents say it will be difficult for some children to adapt back to the need to wear face masks for prolonged periods while at school.

Katy Rice, British mum of three (age 8, 6 and 3) and the co-owner of online children’s concept store Harri and Eve, says the prospect is causing her eldest child a lot of anxiety:

“My daughter is already asking if she will have to wear masks at school again. The pandemic has affected her the most out of all my children, and she’s feeling a bit nervous and scared. My three kids have had the most wonderful summer travelling, not wearing masks. They’ve seen what life is like everywhere else and I don’t think my daughter can understand why she now must wear a mask at school again.”

“The rules seem so counterproductive anyway, because the kids all hang out together outside of school without wearing masks. I fail to see at this point what wearing a mask achieves, other than anxiety in children.”

Many parents are now saying that face masks in schools must be banned

Katy Rice is a Dubai-based entrepreneur and mum of three children.

Katy is adamant that the mask mandate needs to be reviewed – but emphasises that it should not be left to the last minute:

“If there are plans to revise the mask rules, the decision must be announced sooner rather than later, so the little ones can enjoy the last of their summer holidays and not spoil it getting wound up and full of anxiety at the prospect of school.”

“I think we need to accept that we’ve taken enough joy and fun out of school for the kids. Enough of their childhood has been stolen – let’s start giving them something back.”

“I know what it’s like to be high-risk and I still think it’s time for our kids to be mask-free”

The mental health impacts of face masks are high says parents

Mary Patten with her son Max

Mary Patten, mum to Matilda (10) and Maxwell (5) and Senior Property Advisor at Blackbrick Property in Dubai, says she firmly believes that “the mental and long-term effects of wearing a mask far outweigh the risk of catching Covid.”

Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2021, and bravely shared her experience of chemotherapy in the pandemic via her hugely inspiring and uplifting Instagram account.

She’s now cancer-free, but having endured serious illness and reduced immunity due to chemo during the earlier waves of Covid, Mary says she still thinks it’s time for children to be allowed not to wear masks at school:

“As someone who was extremely high-risk last year, I took my own precautions, and I would hope that someone else in that position would do the same. There are hundreds of diseases that we have lived with before the pandemic without wearing masks, so it’s time to allow our kids to start living mask free again!”
“Of course, if an individual wishes to keep wearing a mask that’s down to them. I’d recommend anyone who is high-risk to keep wearing masks, and avoid busy places – it’s common sense isn’t it?”

The negative impact of mask-wearing on kids outweighs the safety benefits, believes Mary:

“There are so many stories and evidence showing the impact mask wearing has had on children. For example, kids not wanting to go to school, children who have struggled with communication skills after the masks have been removed, and child psychologists who have a wait time of over six months because they are inundated with children who have post Covid 19 restriction anxiety.”

“Children entering into their teens are already subject to many new emotions and challenges. It can be harder to read the emotions of someone wearing a mask so this can also affect how they make new friends and interact with their peers.”

Mary says she believes the mask mandate should be lifted not only in schools, but in public places too:

Our kids have been through enough over the last few years, and whilst I understood the need to wear them whilst in lockdown, this is not substantiated now.”
“Restaurants are back to full capacity, hotels are full of tourists, live music and concerts are back, and brunches are bursting at the seams.”

“You only need to look on social media to see that, in most of these places, mask wearing is down to a minimum, if at all. Why then, are we still making our children and teachers wear them for six hours or more a day?”

“A teacher can go to a brunch, mix with hundreds of people without wearing a mask, and yet on Monday morning they’re back to wearing them again. It just doesn’t make logical sense.”

“Better to be safe than sorry”

But not every parent agrees that mask-wearing rules should be lifted in Dubai schools.

On our survey of more than 1,000 parents on Facebook community group Parents United UAE, 75% of parents supported lifting the mask-wearing mandate, while 10% of parents said they did not mind either way, and 15% of parents said they would prefer to keep the mask wearing rules in place:

To the question “Do you think face-mask rules should be lifted for children in the new academic term?”, we received the following results:

  • 75%  Yes! Everything else has gone back to normal, so children should not have to wear a face mask all day long at school
  • 10% Don’t mind – my child doesn’t mind wearing them, so it doesn’t make that much difference to me either way
  • 15% No – There are still a lot of vulnerable people and new Covid strains happening, wearing masks is a small price to pay to keep children safer

Face masks - should they now be banned for children in schools?

Surya Susan Bijoy, an Indian freelance journalist and Dubai-based mother of two, whose children (Cyril and Karen) study in a Sharjah school, shares her thoughts on why the face mask rules should not be lifted yet:

“I support the view that kids should wear masks in school till this Pandemic is really officially and unofficially over.”

“There are still many children who are not vaccinated and the risks are still high.”

“So it’s best to have precautions taken rather than regretting it later.”

Michaela (Aminah) Cooper, the Founder of DUNEHA (Dubai and Northern Emirates Homeschooling Association) and SchoolsCompared Parent Panelist counsels patience to those parents who are eager to see the masks dropped:

“Face masks are believed to have been a fundamental tool in the Covid fight. So, until the government agencies are convinced that the mask mandate be lifted, I’m for keeping the masks in place.”

“I have grandchildren in the US that are no longer wearing masks to school, so I understand those who are ready to move on. Patience … our time will come!”

This echoes the stance of Educational Psychologist Dr Diksha Laungani, from The Psychology Center at the Carbone Clinic, Dubai Healthcare City.

She says that although some students with certain sensory sensitivities or neurodiverse conditions have really struggled with mask mandates, exemptions offered by the UAE government have worked well for them. For students without such conditions, mask-wearing is justified for the time being, she says:

“At this point, for others [without a specific sensitivity or neurodiversity] the mask-wearing appears to be associated with a sense of annoyance [rather than severe distress]. Overall, the benefits of wearing masks (for those who can) outweigh the inconveniences, according to emerging research.”

Another aspect parents emphasise is that mask wearing simply lowers the enjoyment levels of children at school and, with many having been away for weeks in countries where they never need to wear masks, the prospect of adapting back to mask wearing is something they are dreading. To this Dr Laungani says:

We must give credit to children for being resilient. Wearing masks do impact opportunities for play and non-verbal communication. The latter is extremely important for children’s social-emotional development, in the sense that, they regulate their expressions and feelings based on others. Extended mask use could mean that the younger ones have missed out on some important milestones related to emotional regulation. However, as development is not a fixed cycle, children will catch up.”

“There is a chance that adapting to different mask mandates across countries will take time. However, previous habits will certainly help in being reinforced.”

“And it is likely that if the mask mandates within schools are removed now, they might have to be reinforced again. Pre-emptive celebrations may confuse the younger ones. ”

While there’s no doubt that mask-wearing is inconvenient for children, we should still be mindful of the situation of others, says Dr Laungani:

“We must not forget that there are still children and their families (or even school staff) who may be vulnerable due to certain health conditions.”

“A belief of ‘yes, we’ve had COVID-19 and it does not matter any more’ seems to be quite prominent within society, but is that not a little self-centred? Communities, families, and groups are still quite important to us as humans and we should be considerate of those who may still be at risk. What if that was us?”

“Alternatively, students of determination could find it much easier to communicate if masks are removed. An optional mask mandate may provide the flexibility and social acceptance of some children choosing to wear masks if required.”

Our attitude to and behaviour around mask wearing mandates has a greater significance for society, adds Dr Laungani:

“At the end of all this, we should consider the values that we would like to instil within the current generation: it is not simply about having masks on or removing them. Flexibility (to stay within the remit of changing mandates), empathy (for those who may still be at risk or in fear), acceptance (of children who may still choose to wear a mask without the fear of being bullied) – these must be at the core of the agenda within schools. This is what we can control, not the government’s ultimate decision.”

What does the KHDA say? Exclusive

The Covid safety guidelines in Dubai private schools are issued by the Dubai school regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), which – like all of the individual emirates’ education authorities – is in turn informed and shaped by the policies and guidance of the UAE’s Ministry of Education, as well as the relevant health authorities.

SchoolsCompared contacted the KHDA for comment regarding parents’ demands for an end to the mask mandate and received the following exclusive statement:

“We understand that some parents are eager for the requirement on face masks to be changed for the new academic year.”

“Health and safety protocols established by the relevant government authorities stipulate that face masks must continue to be worn indoors for the time being.

“Any changes in the protocols will be announced through our official channels.”

Is there a compromise?

Mother of seven-year-old twins and member of the SchoolsCompared Parent Panel, Ellie Salkeld, says that although mask-wearing has many disadvantages, we must hold on to the lessons that we have learnt from them during the pandemic:

“I’d love mandatory face masks to be dropped. My kids have always worn them without argument, but the detrimental effects (phonics up-take, interpersonal communication, ability to read facial cues, just plain BORING for the kids, etc) are just another barrier to school being fun and learning.”

“That said, I have a new respect for face masks since Covid – they really do seem to have a massive impact on coughs/colds and other viruses. Personally, if I had a bad cold or cough now, I think I’d pop a mask on in the office or classroom or indoor spaces – just out of politeness!”

Ellie Salkeld is the mum of twins, a children’s book writer and part-time teaching assistant

Ellie says she would support a gradual approach to lifting the face-mask mandate:

“Ideally, I’d like two things. First, a phased approach: schools able to mandate that students and teachers showing symptoms of any transmissible virus, wear a mask indoors until symptoms subside. Then, keeping a couple of masks in the school-bag becomes the norm for everyone, any time. And teachers would be empowered to mask-up a student if they felt that it would be beneficial to all.”

“And second, a trial period of a term, after which stats on pupil and teacher sickness and wellbeing is judged. And return to masks at any time if some new variant – or any other lurgy – arises.”

This middle-ground approach is similar to that suggested by Dr Arif Khan, Paediatric Neurologist and Founder of Neuropedia, a company that specializes in childhood neurological conditions, who says that mask-wearing will need to be lifted at some point – but more research is needed to determine when it is safe:

“There is no doubt that masking reduces the spread of disease, we have seen this during the peak of COVID pandemic when other viral respiratory infections were also reduced with stringent masking mandate in place.”

“Clearly, as the pandemic eases out we need to have a timely withdrawal of this mandate but is it the right time?”

“Firstly, the local policy makers should consider that when we study a group of individuals or a cohort of population, we have to consider that there are outliers. Some individuals may warrant an exemption from the general policy, like children with hearing loss, children with autism who cannot interpret facial expressions and children with significant breathing problems (as deemed by their treating physician).”

Dr Arif Khan, Paediatric Neurologist and Founder of Neuropedia

Other measures to prevent the virus from getting into schools must be made more robust, says Dr Khan:

“Like strict testing and symptom checking protocol. If a case is identified, then masking becomes an important mitigation strategy. More importantly, when a community surge is noted, we should be open to reintroduce the mask mandate as per the instructions by the authorities.”

“There is clearly no specific number or percentage that would determine as to when the mask mandates can be withdrawn. However, there are several factors that would contribute towards this decision, like the availability of enough space to spread the students, ventilation in each room etc.”

“We all agree that withdrawing mask mandate at schools should be in our agenda as we must try it at some point, however, schools need to have a very robust plan to initiate this plan and be ready for every possible outcome or event. Schools and parents should also be ready for mandates being implemented again in case of surge of cases or new stronger variants being identified.”

“I completely understand the two sides of the debate – the side that emphasizes the impediment to learning and the side that says we need to keep them on to remain safe.”

“None of us want our children to be wearing a mask for 8 hours at school if it is unnecessary. However, on balance, we still need to keep them on for now until further assurances are obtained.”

KHDA safety protocol for schools from March 2022, which is currently still relevant as of 16 August 2022

Are face masks really detrimental to children’s health?

Every parent knows their child best, and individual students will have had very different experiences with mask-wearing. However, Dr Arif Khan, Paediatric Neurologist and Founder of Neuropedia, says that, on balance, the evidence does not show that masks are truly dangerous to the average child’s health:

“Mask Mandates have been a contentious issue for almost a year now. We have seen that the mandate is being lifted slowly across the world one country or state at a time.”

“What is the current status in UAE and what does science say?”

“There have been some concerns raised by teachers and parents that masks harm children by causing breathing difficulties, slowing down their social development and causing anxiety. However, these are not backed by any evidence so far.”

“I have addressed concerns from parents where they thought that masking would not allow them to get enough oxygen or trap in too much carbon dioxide. But there is no evidence for this. We know that the oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules are far smaller than the holes in the weave of cloth or surgical masks and there should not be any hinderance to them flowing through and around a mask.”

“Another concern that has been doing the rounds is that whether masks impair children’s language development as they can’t see the speaker’s mouth and the sound they hear through the mask is muffled. Again, there is no evidence to this claim.”

“Another claim that is often discussed is whether masks impair social development. Children, from early age watch faces of people who surround them, and they learn to distinguish between positive and negative emotions and thereby tend to adjust their responses. Covering up the bottom half of one’s face with a mask can affect that ability but again this theory has been refuted by a counter argument that children pick up cues from another person’s gait, tone of voice, hand gestures and eye contact, so not being able to see someone’s mouth may not be so detrimental.”

“During the peak of the pandemic, face masks helped children by making sure that they were able to attend their schools and keep their academic and social learning on course. If school attendances were further hampered, that would have caused a significant effect on children’s social, emotional and cognitive ability over years.”

Further information

For Covid 19 and updates in face masks you can read the KHDA News Channel here.

© A WhichMedia Group publication. 2022. All rights reserved.

About The Author
Tabitha Barda
Tabitha Barda is the Senior Editor of Oxbridge educated and an award winning journalist in the UAE for more than a decade, Tabitha is one of the region's shining lights in all that is education in the emirates. A mum herself, she is passionate about helping parents - and finding the stories in education that deserve telling. She is responsible for the busy 24x7 News Desk, our Advisory Boards and Specialist Panels - and Parents United's WHICHPlaydates - a regular meeting place for UAE parents to discuss the issues that matter to them, make friends and network with others. You can often find Tabitha too on Parents United - our Facebook community board, discussing the latest schools and education issues with our parent community in the UAE - and beyond.
  • R
    August 17, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    Katy Rice and Mary Patten – I am 100% aligned with you thoughts. The benefit of removing the mask for our children’s (and our) mental health and social and emotional wellbeing far out outweighs the need to still retain them. We are aligned with the majority of the World it seems.

    Surya Susan Bijoy – Question. Can you commit that you have fully complied with the mask mandate yourself (i.e. you have not attended any indoor family gathering, weddings or other events without wearing a mask properly over you nose and mouth)? When is a Pandemic “officially” or “unofficially” over? Who is going to tell you it has “officially” ended? Every disease started somewhere and full eradication is virtually impossible. Children everyday are being put at greater risks by, for example, their parents failing to put them properly in a car seat, yet some parents think this is less important than making their child wear a mask.

    Michaela Cooper – We have been patient enough in this country. Enough is enough. Many adults now defy the rules as you will have seen in malls and hotels but the children unfortunately don’t have this choice in school.

    Dr Disha Laungani – Exemptions to mask wearing does not solve the issue. By exempting a child you are causing them more anxiety by creating exclusion from their peers. Mask wearing for our children (and ourselves) should not be classified as an “annoyance” or an “inconvenience” and I would not have expected such a statement from a medical professional. It has a deeper social and emotional impact on the children, which is only just coming to the surface. I know of children who, at the end of last term, would not leave their house without a mask on, who have cried when there parents tell them they don’t need to wear it. Young girls who want to continue hiding their faces due to self-esteem issues. Whilst these are not “specific sensitivity or neurodiversity”, they are certainly major mental health issues, wouldn’t you agree in your professional opinion?

    Ellie Salkeld – At the end of last term there was much illness in the schools (Covid not being in the majority but instead influenza, norovirus and other illnesses playing a large part). This was acknowledged by local doctors to be due to extensive mask wearing having limited children’s immune systems. As our children grow they need to build up immunity overwise this generation will suffer in later years. Forcing masks back on faces for “any other lurgy” and normalizing this is absolutely unacceptable on so many levels and inhumane.

    Dr Arif Khan – Ok but when? On what data are you suggesting this decision to lift masks is made? Comparably, other countries are far behind but then so far ahead on this one point without major impact or risk to the general population. Do you want me to introduce some children to you with impacted social and emotional issues so you have your evidence? When my child asked me at the age of 7, “Daddy are we the problem as adults no longer wear masks in malls and hotels but we have to wear them in school?” How do you think this made me feel?

    My children, my choice.

  • Jo
    August 18, 2022 at 12:40 am

    It is definitely time to remove the masks, the rest of the world have mostly dropped their restrictions as should the UAE. It is cruel, causing lots of unnecessary anxiety and moreover, there is no evidence that mask wearing reduces the transmission of any virus, free the children! They have already been robbed of so much of their childhood

  • C
    August 19, 2022 at 12:49 pm

    I’m a board director for a UK school where students, staff and visitors are not required to wear face masks but can do so if they wish. We have also removed the Perspex screen from our reception desk. Cleaning programme & hand sanitiser still remain around the site. It’s a satisfactory situation for everyone concerned and part of our steps to return to normality. Protocol measures can easily be reintroduced, if required.

  • Mary
    August 19, 2022 at 8:15 pm

    As a teacher and a parent of a child heading into Year 2 it’s so important and it’s time masks were lifted. We all appreciate everything Dubai did to protect us during the pandemic. But it’s time to allow children and schools to go back to normal. Teachers need to see children’s faces, their expressions etc. Children also need to be reassured by a friendly smile from us as well when they need it. Masks are not providing any protection they are suppressing our immune systems. There are children not in car seats and not strapped in on cars in Dubai that are in far more danger than if they don’t wear a mask. Hopefully this will soon change so we can go back to the school life we know and love.

  • Samantha
    August 19, 2022 at 10:57 pm

    Absolutely time to remove the mask. I fully support this individuals and families who may wish to continue to use them but the anxiety my children are feeling about having to wear them again. It’s heartbreaking. And everywhere we go in Dubai, tourists are not wearing them, people in cafes aren’t wearing them, even landing at the airport, people aren’t wearing them. Enough.

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