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The untold story of UAE school unmasking: While many rejoice, this is what parents of high-risk kids want you to know

Social media sites, group chats, and UAE parents’ faces all lit up with delight as the news broke. The UAE face mask mandate –arguably the most disruptive hangover from the pandemic – was to be lifted inside most public places from 28 September 2022.

It was everything UAE parents – most UAE parents – had been praying and lobbying for, after a tumultuous start to the school year. Most UAE parents, but not all. The following is the story of that minority, the untold story whose voice deserves to be heard.

The story of the majority

Following a summer spent abroad, many families had become accustomed to mask-free living. By the time they arrived back on UAE soil, these smile-obscuring face coverings felt like a suffocating symbol of a dark period they would rather forget.

So, when the regulation requiring face masks to be worn by both adults and children aged six and above remained in place for the new academic year’s Back-to-School period, there was an uproar.

Furious parents lobbied the KHDA and other authorities on social media in their thousands asking for the mandate to be reversed, publishing posts using the hashtag #dropthemasks, and citing social development issues, anxiety, and school-refusal in their children.

But fast forward a few weeks and the tables have turned.

On Monday 26 September, the UAE’s National Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced that the pandemic has reached a period of stability, meaning face masks can now become optional inside most public places – including schools.

The uproar turned into roars of joy as families celebrated being able to live mask-free at last, after two and half years of disruption.

Students, teachers, support staff, parents – everyone, it seemed, was thrilled that finally the mask anxiety can stop and our children can play and breathe without an obstruction in the way.

The untold stories of the unheard minority

Except, not everyone is really so happy about it.

For some, the mask anxiety has only just begun.

Beneath the peals of happiness about the UAE school unmasking are notes of discord from an unheard minority, many of whom are afraid even to share their views publicly.

According to a poll of more than 1,000 families in the community group Parents United UAE, 86% of parents are unreservedly happy about the mask mandate being dropped, but the remaining 14% are not as comfortable:

  • 86% said ‘I am thrilled and relieved – it’s about time the masks came off!’
  • 10% said ‘I am positive, but with reservations. I hope it will not backfire in anyway…’
  • 4% said ‘I feel Anxious – the pandemic is not over yet and I am worried about how this might pan out’

Maddy*, a mum-of-two who recently moved to Dubai after living for several years in China and Saudi Arabia, is one member of this unheard minority. She told SchoolsCompared that she is worried the anti-mask feeling is so passionate here that she might face a backlash if her children continue wearing one, as she would like them to:

“I worry about whether or not people will now respect the choice of those who decide to continue wearing a mask.”

“This summer in Europe I encountered a lot of aggressive behaviour because my family was still wearing masks even though it wasn’t mandatory. I had a few confrontations with strangers, who verbally abused me for it.”

She believes that there will be pressure for all children to take their masks off, even if they do not want to:

“Making mask-wearing ‘optional’ at school, to me, equals everyone removing masks. The idea of respecting people’s choices is great, but the practicality is different. People who think there will be no peer pressure are fooling themselves. Parents like the ones who verbally abused me in Europe have shared their views with their kids, and those children will come to school with this intolerant attitude.”

Maddy is so worried about other people’s intolerance that she asked us to change her name for fear of negative repercussions:

“I don’t even feel comfortable giving my name for this interview. So that should tell you something about what kind of aggressive behaviour I’ve encountered so far. I have only recently moved here and I don’t want to become a target.”

‘A shield being taken off’

For parents of children with compromised immunity, the mask mandate being dropped suddenly raises the risk that they might get an infection – which has a much greater chance of being serious for them than it would be for a child with regular immunity levels.

One mother of a high-risk child, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, told SchoolsCompared she is anxious about the ramifications of the mask mandate being dropped:

“I am a mum of a toddler who grew through Covid I know being able to see people smiling at him will impact him positively.”

“However with my other child currently going through chemotherapy and living with weakened immunity, I can’t help but think of this as a shield being taken off.”

“I hope parents remain vigilant and refrain sending their children to school with symptoms of cold or infections.”

Rim with her son Rafi, who has been a cancer fighter since 2019. She urges other parents to keep their children away from school if they show any signs of sickness, now that masks no longer have to be worn

Rim Obeid, a Dubai-based mum of two whose eldest boy, Rafi, 5, has been fighting cancer since 2019, shares similar concerns about the UAE school unmasking. She says that it’s crucial to raise awareness that some children will still want to wear a mask – and that they should not be judged for it:

“We used to get bullied at the beginning of the pandemic because we were taking extra precautions and wearing N95 masks. Until the whole world realized that Covid-19 was real!”

“Now that masks are not mandatory anymore, this does not mean people can forget about being considerate of others.”

“Children on chemotherapy will still need to wear a mask when their immunity is low.”

“It is crucial to raise awareness that a mask is still needed in some cases for some people, including children. Teach your children that those children might be different, but they are not LESS.”

“As for parents, we would like to encourage all mums and dads to be considerate and maintain a cautious approach when it comes to your own child’s health – especially in schools, nurseries and play areas.”

“If your child is showing signs of contagious symptoms, it is OK to keep him or her at home to rest, rather than insisting he or she carries on as normal amongst other children, saying ‘It is OK, it’s just a flu, just a rash, or just an upset tummy’.”

“No, it is not ‘OK’. Not only because you need to protect other children, but because your child also needs rest and deserves your care, empathy, and supervision to heal.”

Cancer fighter Rafi taking part in the Childhood Cancer Awareness activities this September – the same month that the mask mandate was dropped

Mixed emotions

The fact that the announcement about the mask mandate being dropped comes in September – which is also Childhood Cancer Awareness Month – highlights some mixed emotions for mothers like Karin Voyatjes.

Karin has been involved in raising awareness for Childhood Cancer month ever since her daughter, Alexa, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia at the age of 3. Alexa underwent a period of intensely invasive chemotherapy throughout the depths of the pandemic, and although she ‘rang the bell’ to signal the end of her treatment back in 2021, concern about her children’s health is never far away for Karin:

“I have mixed emotions about masks being removed.”

“On the one hand I am elated that my 8-year-old son can attend school carefree and engage with his friends without worrying about wearing a mask.”

“On the other hand, as the mum of a 7-year-old daughter who is a Leukaemia survivor, I am both excited and anxious.”

Alexa marked the end of her cancer treatment two years ago

The end of the mask mandate is all the more significant for Alexa because her illness meant she was wearing masks long before it became normal for everyone:

“My daughter has been wearing a mask since the end of 2018 when she was diagnosed with Leukaemia.”

“She continued wearing a mask post the end of her leukaemia treatment given the Covid pandemic.”

“The mask served as protection not only against Covid but also general germs whilst her immune system was recovering.”

“This will be the first time in 4 years that she attends school without wearing a mask. A momentous occasion, which is both daunting and exciting at the same time.”

Even though Alexa, now 7, has finished treatment and is doing so much better now, her mother still has mixed emotions about the mask mandate being dropped

Another parent of a child fighting cancer, Tanya Miller, agrees that the end of the mask mandate is a reason for both celebration and worry.

Tanya’s eight-year-old daughter, Sophie, was diagnosed with Leukaemia last year and is currently going through a six-month period of maintenance chemotherapy. Although Tanya wants Sophie to continue wearing a mask to keep herself safe, Sophie has been adamant that she doesn’t want to wear one now that the UAE school unmasking has happened. Tanya says:

“She doesn’t want to wear one as she feels it will make her stand out from her classmates and she wants to see their faces properly.”

“While I fully appreciate that, it’s definitely a worry that she will be exposed to more bugs and viruses generally.”

“Just like the return to school after a period of travel, there is always an increase in sickness, and it’s definitely a worry that she could be overexposed in the next week or so.”

“She understands the role a mask plays, but she also sees that it’s a hindrance socially and she just wants to see her friends properly.”

Although Tanya would prefer Sophie to continue wearing a mask, she still sees the UAE school unmasking as a good thing for children in general, as long as people continue to take sensible precautions. Tanya is also the mother of twin girls who have just started in Year 2 – the first year in which masks became mandatory for children under the previous Covid rules – and she says they are ecstatic to go back to being mask-free:

“The twins will definitely go into school without a mask…they can’t wait!”

Although she is still going through maintenance chemotherapy, Sophie completed a 10KM bike ride this September to raise money for the Childrens Cancer & Leukaemia Group

UAE school Unmasking: Being forced to unmask’?

But it’s not only parents of high-risk children who have mixed emotions regarding the mask mandate being lifted.

Maddy* has concerns about long Covid and the risk of children being exposed to other diseases after such a long period of mask-wearing:

“The pandemic is not over yet. Most kids are not vaccinated. And there are many vaccinated people at risk still.

“And I worry that the mask mandate cancellation comes in Autumn when diseases like cold, flu, gastro and others are also around.”

“Also, no-one considers long Covid in kids. Still very little is known about long-Covid in general, but especially in kids, who have their whole lives ahead of them – and we have no idea whether living with long-Covid could end up having much more traumatic effect than wearing a mask.”

“Plus, wearing a mask is not just about protecting yourself but also others – and we don’t know people’s individual circumstances. Maybe they are at risk or someone they live with is at risk.”

Maddy’s* family will continue to wear masks despite the mandate being lifted, and she hopes that it will not lead to criticism:

“As long as people respect the choice of others and don’t try to impose their views I’m OK with it, but it feels like a pendulum. We were all forced to mask-up during the pandemic – which is not even over officially yet – and now that rules are relaxing it seems sometimes like there is no free choice but that everyone should now be forced to unmask.”

Keeping an open mind

With all of the mixed emotions regarding mask-wearing, Ian Wallace, Principal of Horizon English School, summed up the importance of sensitivity succinctly in a letter to parents:

“For many, [the UAE school unmasking] will be very pleasing news and a celebration as a next step towards recovery from the COVID pandemic.”

“However, for some staff, students and parents there will be some anxiety around this.”

“The COVID pandemic has been far reaching, having a huge impact on our personal and professional lives.”

“Although we are living through this pandemic together, our personal and family experiences have varied.”

“As an inclusive school, we will respect staff, students and parents’ decisions to continue to wear a mask until they feel comfortable not to.”

“We need to ensure that we speak to students, families and staff without enforcing our own personal beliefs nor questioning the decisions of others.”

“We will ensure that we maintain an environment where all feel comfortable. Furthermore, it is important that we continue to maintain high standards of cleanliness and hygiene as we transition into this next long-awaited phase to recovery, being prudent to keep moving forwards.”

See Horizon English School’s website here. 

How do you feel about the mask mandate being dropped? At SchoolsCompared, we are divided on the issue of unmasking, so you are not alone if you have mixed feelings. Let me know at [email protected] – I would love to hear your views!

* Name changed to protect sources

© 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's The School's Report - the global weekly round up of what matters in education for parents which is published every Friday, reviewing schools across the UAE - and features on issues that really matter. You can often find Tabitha on Parents United - our Facebook community board, discussing the latest schools and education issues with our parent community in the UAE - and beyond.

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