The Consultative Committee's decision to impose face mask rules on children from the age of 6 has been heavily criticised by parents and teachers, with a group of people protesting the measure in front of a Flemish school on Monday.
A group of protestors gathered in front of a primary school in the municipality of Kortrijk in the West Flanders province on Monday morning with signs saying "let children be children" and "no to masks."
"In our opinion, wearing a face mask is unhealthy for small children," the protestors told Het Laatste Nieuws. "They need to be able to get sick to make their immune system stronger."
Furthermore, protesters argue that children's speech and motor skills are in full development, something which is inhibited by the constant wearing of a mask. "We think that people should immediately stop blaming children for the pandemic. Enough is enough, you leave little children alone."
Both the cabinet of Flemish Education Minister Ben Weyts and the organisation of Catholic Education in Flanders stated that they do not know of any other protests at school gates on Monday.
"We do not know of any actions, but Minister Weyts did get a lot of emails about the measure over the weekend, so we know that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the measures," Michaël Devoldere, Weyts' spokesperson, told The Brussels Times.
A last resort
Devoldere sympathised with the concern for the new mask rules: "The measure is really hard for us too, but it was necessary to keep the schools open. We were told that it was a choice: at home without a mask, or in school with a mask."
Devoldere also stated that Weyts hopes that once Belgium reaches a point where the rules can be relaxed again, the mask requirement for young children will be the first measure to be lifted.
While the organisation of Catholic Education in Flanders also stated that they do not know of any other protests, it added that it makes sense that there would be some discussions at school gates on the first day this measure takes effect.
"It is especially important to focus on dialogue and for schools to indicate exactly how they will implement the mask mandate, especially today and tomorrow," Pieter-Jan Crombez, spokesperson for Catholic Education, told The Brussels Times.
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One primary school in the municipality of Opwijk in Flemish Brabant, De Leertrommel, has been requiring face masks for children as young as 6 in class since last year and never had to close the school or quarantine any classes.
"We first talked about it with the parents and children," director of De Leertrommel Kathleen Van Lemmens told VRT. "We explained why we were doing it, and we made it a positive story."
'Only way to stay open safely'
While structure and patience will be important to make sure that everything goes smoothly, Crombez also stressed that the schools already have the experience of requiring face masks for children in the fifth and sixth grades.
"Initially, many parents were not happy about that either, but over time, we have seen that it gradually went smoother," he added.
Crombez highlighted the high number of infections and quarantines imposed in primary schools. "According to the experts, the only way to keep the schools open as safely as possible, both for pupils and for teachers, is to use those face masks; so we will do that – hopefully for as short a time as possible."
In the meantime, Director-General of Catholic Education Flanders Lieven Boeve, also called for unanimity on the mask obligation while recognising that it is not an easy rule. "But if the need had not been so great, this measure would never have come about," he told Het Laatste Nieuws.
"The important thing now is for all of us to make that a bit bearable," he urged. "We need to make sure that parents and teachers are pulling on the same side so that we can make that transition in primary education with the children."
"I understand that parents have questions, but at a certain point you also have to look at what measures are left to keep our schools open," said Boeve. "Experience has shown that a mask is at least a means to that end."