The Department for Education (DfE) has announced new advice that will see the return of face masks for secondary school and college students at the beginning of next term.
Face mask requirements will return to classrooms across England, with new plans being drawn up to stall the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
This news comes after a health boss warned that the “next few days are crucial” in the fight against the virus.
What’s the plan for schools in England?
Face coverings will return for secondary school pupils in England’s classrooms – having already been recommended in communal areas for older students and staff.
In the announcement from the DfE, the department said: “Face-to-face education remains a top priority, as the evidence shows it is the best place to be for children’s education and wellbeing.
“To maximise the number of children in school and college for the maximum amount of time, the Government is temporarily recommending that face coverings are worn in classrooms and teaching spaces for students in year seven or above, in light of the Omicron variant surge.”
The advice has been described as a “short term only” measure in a bid to protect students and teachers as they return to school.
The new advice on face coverings in classrooms will be in place until 26 January, when Plan B regulations are currently set to expire, at which point the advice will be reviewed.
The Government is also set to roll out 7,000 new air purifiers for areas to improve ventilation, building upon the 1,000 air purifiers which had already been announced for special schools and alternative provision settings.
What’s been said about bringing face coverings back into schools?
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi acknowledged that the variant “presents challenges”, but said that the Government is taking steps to “bolster our support for schools” in an effort to minimise disruption when students return to their desks after the Christmas break.
Geoff Barton, General Secretary for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), welcomed the new advice, but acknowledged that there are “obvious drawbacks”.
He said: “While there are obvious drawbacks to the use of face coverings in classrooms, it is clear that the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education with the potential for further widespread disruption of schools, colleges, and young people.
“It is absolutely essential that everything possible is done to reduce transmission and ensure that children remain in school, and we therefore support the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms for students in year seven and above.”
While Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, also welcomed the reintroduction of face masks, he said ministers should have acted sooner.
“We are really pleased that the Government is talking to us and trying to work out how to get some support into schools now,” Whiteman told the BBC.
“We’re rather disappointed that we’re having the conversations this side of Christmas when we could have been making these arrangements earlier on.
“The other thing we’re going to need is a very flexible approach from the Government that means as we begin to understand the picture more and more, they’re prepared to make other changes very quickly.”
Additionally, the supply of the 7,000 new air purifiers for areas of schools has been branded “completely inadequate” by NEU teaching union Joint General Secretary Dr Mary Bousted.
She said: “The fact that the Government have provided the extra purifiers shows that it recognises the problem, but with over 300,000 classrooms in England, they have failed to provide an effective solution.”
What are the rules in the rest of the UK?
In Scotland, pupils returning to school in 2022 will need to continue wearing face coverings.
Reach, which is funded by the Scottish government, explains: “If you are in high school, you will continue to be asked to wear a face mask at school for most of the time. This includes in classrooms, communal areas and when moving about the school.
“If you use school transport you will also continue to be asked to wear a face mask during your journeys to and from school.”
In Wales, all staff and secondary aged learners are to wear face coverings in communal areas and classrooms where physical distancing cannot be maintained. This measure was introduced on 29 November 2021, and is set to remain in place until students return to school in January.
Face coverings are also still recommended for use by secondary aged learners on school transport.
In Northern Ireland, the use of face coverings is mandatory for all post-primary aged pupils on school transport services, and it is strongly recommended that post-primary students wear face coverings “at all times when inside school buildings, including classrooms, corridors and confined communal spaces such as toilet areas”.
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