Jillian Batting says her son's skin sometimes crawls so bad he can barely wear a T-shirt at home.
The middle-school student has a diagnosed sensory processing disorder that can cause him discomfort. While he can sometimes wear masks without issues, other times it's a problem that can't be ignored.
Batting said the staff at her school in Warman have gone above and beyond when it comes to accommodating her son, as he has a medical exemption, but she worries about what the upcoming school year will hold for him and her three other children.
"One of my other concerns would be how the other students are going to handle, for example, my son," she asked. "Will the other students make fun of, or bully, my son because he gets a little bit of special treatment?"
Whether you're an anti-masker or a pro-masker, be kind to each other. - Jillian Batting, Warman Parent
Her youngest child, a daughter in Grade 3, also has some issues wearing a mask. Batting said her daughter finds it difficult to speak and has to readjust it regularly, which could lead to touching her face and exposing herself to risk.
Unlike her son, her daughter does not have a medical exemption and will be required to wear the mask at school.
"We will provide them for her, but I'm not expecting her to wear it on a very regular basis," Batting said.
Batting said these are just some of the concerns she has about making students wear masks. She also has questions about oral hygiene while wearing a cloth mask, mask costs and whether or not kids will be able to fully focus if they feel uncomfortable throughout the day.
"There are a lot of parents out there who are very concerned about how this will affect their child's health," she said.
While Batting said she is not against masks, there are some people who are — but experts have countered claims by anti-mask groups.
"As a medical professional, we wear masks in our day-to-day practice and it has not caused doctors or nurses or surgeons any harm," Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a family physician in Burlington, Ont., told CBC News.
The real risk, said Kwan, is wearing your mask incorrectly, including sharing it with others, reusing non-reusable masks, or not cleaning cloth masks properly. Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at Toronto's University Health Network, added that she has not "seen any medical or scientific evidence that shows that wearing a mask depletes your body of oxygen. Nor do they let any harmful gases, such as carbon dioxide, build up, she said.
Students can be punished for repeated refusal
School divisions must provide accommodation for students with medical conditions, but students without will be required to follow rules put in place by school divisions, which have been formulated with guidance from the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA), as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
The guidance says divisions can mandate mask use, as it is a matter of student and staff safety, and that requiring a student to wear a mask does not violate the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.
"If, however, a student is unable to wear a mask because of medical reasons, that student must be accommodated in the same way as any student with medical restrictions," the guidance explained.
It says discussions with parents and guardians should be the first step, but that students can be refused entry to a school or a bus if they refuse to follow the guidelines.
Parents could be fined for keeping kids out of school
The SSBA also said parents have an obligation to ensure their children are attending school, even if they don't agree with the division's policies.
"If parents will not support the Division/school rules then the parent will have full responsibility for ensuring registration of the student in an alternate form of allowable education," the guidance says.
If parents refuse to enrol their child, they may be subject to legal proceedings under Saskatchewan's Education Act, which could result in a fine of $5,000 for a first offence and $10,000 for a second.
Many parents see no problems with masks
Many Saskatchewan parents have fully embraced masks. Regina parent Danielle Mullinex has already taught her children how to wear them safely, noting she's tried a variety of masks to find some that are comfortable for her kids.
"I think it's important to try those things ahead of time," she said.
Mullinex said she's had no issues getting her kids to wear masks.
"I think it's all about just telling them the honest truth about why we are wearing masks and that it's our responsibility to try to keep ourselves safe as well as other people safe," she said. "People don't sometimes give kids enough credit. They understand what's going on. You just have to talk to them."
Research shows majority of Saskatchewan residents support mask use
Research conducted by The Angus Reid Institute back in July found that those with anti-mask sentiments are the vocal minority, as more than half — 55 per cent — of the Saskatchewan residents surveyed are in favour of making masks mandatory in public places.
However, while the majority of those surveyed were in favour of mandatory masks, Saskatchewan had the highest percentage of people who were opposed to mandatory masks in the country, coming in at about 45 per cent.
That's the highest opposition of any province in Canada.
In comparison, Saskatchewan's neighbour to the west in Alberta came in at 60 per cent of respondents in favour of mandatory masks, and 40 per cent opposed.
"In most of the country it's actually quite an uncontroversial idea," said Dave Korzinski, research director at The Angus Reid Institute. "[But] there is less of a sense that it is necessary in Saskatchewan."
Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, said data has shown that mask wearing, combined with social distancing and good hand hygiene, helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said masks in school will be an essential part of keeping students, staff and the wider community safe from further spread.
"We cannot afford to have any outbreaks in classrooms and schools because each of the children who are attending classes are connected, in turn, to a family," he said.
Muhajarine said many people who hold anti-mask sentiments are not only opposed to wearing a mask, they're opposed to being told what to do.
"I really don't think science or rational advice would really move them from the positions that they've taken," he said. "This is not science-driven or rational decision making, but I think ideologically driven."
He said no parents should be telling their kids to refuse to wear masks, as they may be putting their kids, and their entire school, at risk.
"Not only is it irresponsible it is actually, in my view, immoral," he said.
Batting said that while she does have concerns about what masks will mean for her children she is not anti-mask, but feels parents should be given more choice. She said the dialogue around masking needs to improve, as no matter which side of the conversation you're on, people still need to be civil.
"Whether you're an anti-masker or a pro-masker, be kind to each other," she said.
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