The Scottish Government has an obligation to make schools as safe as possible and introduce measures to protect the right to life and health of everyone in schools, including adults. We know that closing schools presents a serious risk of harm to the wellbeing of children and young people, and to the fulfilment of their rights. All children’s human rights need to be protected, despite the prevalence of coronavirus in Scotland.
Any interference with rights must be lawful, necessary, proportionate and time limited. Balancing complex intersections of human rights is challenging and it is important to retain public confidence by ensuring the rationale for decision making is as clear and transparent as possible.
The Scottish Government announced on 30th October that it had changed its guidance on wearing of face coverings in schools and that, in areas in local protection level 3 or 4, all pupils in S4 to S6 should now wear a face covering in class, as well as when moving through the school. The Scottish Government has published summaries of the range of evidence considered in making decisions, most recently on 8th December.
The publication of evidence that supports decision making is something we have long called for, and we welcome the Government taking positive steps in this direction.
While this change to the guidance seems necessary and proportionate to the public health need, based on the information available, the interference with children’s rights must be as limited as possible and reviewed regularly.
We are still worried that Child Rights Impact Assessments do not always seem to be used when important decisions affecting children are made. This means that even where the evidence is published, the reasoning behind those decisions is not as clear as it needs to be.
We think Scottish Government needs to do more to explain their decision making around the use of face coverings by young children, particularly where they appear to depart from the current WHO guidance. We note that deaf and other disabled children and young people have been disproportionately affected by the introduction of face coverings. Disabled children and young people must be included in decisions about how to minimise the impact on their rights, and their needs must be considered and highlighted in all guidance on this issue.
The Scottish Government should continue to monitor evidence, from Scotland and elsewhere regarding the use of face coverings, as well as emerging guidance from the WHO. Individual local authorities should review their own advice to children and parents regularly and in particular when their area moves up or down a level. This advice should be consistent with the national advice and guidance to avoid confusion.
What about children who cannot wear a face covering?
Some children are unable to wear a face covering, due to a disability or illness. Both the WHO and Scottish Government guidance permit exemptions for these children and schools must treat requests for exemptions sympathetically and ensure that children who do not wear face coverings are not discriminated against, and are treated sensitively by staff, pupils and other people in the school community.
What about the environmental impact of face coverings?
Children have told us they are unhappy to see disposable face masks on the ground as litter. Even paper face masks contain some plastic and can’t be recycled. The Scottish Government has highlighted different types of face covering which can be used, most of which are reusable. We are pleased to see some schools are providing reusable face coverings to children who don’t have one and they should provide bins for disposable masks at places where people are taking them off, for example outside classrooms or exit areas.