Covid lockdown England: Use of face masks in classrooms could continue until the end of 2021

Face coverings in secondary school classrooms could remain in place until the end of the year after the Government came under pressure not to ‘rush into’ removing the mask mandate from five major unions. 

Officials at the Department for Education (DfE) said secondary pupils in England should wear masks when they return to school for the summer term, in both lessons and corridors, as a ‘precautionary measure’.

They explained that the policy will be dropped as part of stage three of the roadmap out of lockdown, which will happen no earlier than May 17.  

Any changes to the policy will be confirmed with one week’s notice following a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates, the DfE said.

Last month, MPs heard that school leaders had received ‘threatening letters’ from parents who did not want their children to wear face coverings.

But a joint letter from the leaders of the National Education Union (NEU), NASUWT teaching union, NAHT school leaders’ union, GMB and Unison said there was a ‘strong scientific consensus’ that face masks can and should continue to be part of measures to suppress transmission of Covid-19.

When Boris Johnson announced that schools would reopen on March 8, he said secondary school pupils would need to wear masks anywhere indoors where they could not socially distance, including classrooms and corridors.

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE science class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE science class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE science class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE maths class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE maths class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE maths class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

However, at the time he insisted the measure would remain in place until Easter, at which point a review would be carried out. 

The decision to extend the use of masks in the classroom has come as a surprise to many, with parents and campaigners accusing ministers of ‘betraying’ children by upholding the mandate during the summer term.

In their letter to Gavin Williamson, the unions – which represent teachers, heads and other school staff, said masks may be helping suppress the spread of Covid-19 in schools and insisted they are not causing disruption to learning. 

According to the Guardian, the letter stated: ‘None of us wants to see pupils or staff wearing face coverings for longer than is necessary.

‘However, it is our shared view that the government should not rush into changing this policy at short notice without careful consideration of the scientific evidence surrounding the wearing of face coverings in schools.’

The unions argued that there is ‘a strong scientific consensus’ that masks ‘can and should’ be part of anti-coronavirus measures.

‘The research suggests that they cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus,’ the leaders said. 

‘We have also seen the emergence of more recent studies that suggest that they can help to reduce transmission of the virus within schools.’ 

Molly Kingsley, the co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, called the move is ‘really disappointing’ and said ‘the detriment to children of this measure is potentially serious and ongoing’. 

She told the Telegraph that since the Covid spike predicted by schools reopening has not materialised, it is ‘hard to see on what basis this measure is justified’.

Department of Health bosses recorded another 2,379 positive Covid tests, with the rolling seven-day average for infections now at the lowest levels since mid-September

Department of Health bosses recorded another 2,379 positive Covid tests, with the rolling seven-day average for infections now at the lowest levels since mid-September

Department of Health bosses recorded another 2,379 positive Covid tests, with the rolling seven-day average for infections now at the lowest levels since mid-September

Britain's daily coronavirus deaths have fallen by two-thirds in a week, with 20 victims announced. It means the UK has gone a fortnight without registering over 100 daily deaths

Britain's daily coronavirus deaths have fallen by two-thirds in a week, with 20 victims announced. It means the UK has gone a fortnight without registering over 100 daily deaths

Britain’s daily coronavirus deaths have fallen by two-thirds in a week, with 20 victims announced. It means the UK has gone a fortnight without registering over 100 daily deaths

Boris Johnson during a gloomy media briefing in Downing Street yesterday

Boris Johnson during a gloomy media briefing in Downing Street yesterday

Boris Johnson during a gloomy media briefing in Downing Street yesterday

The TRUTH about those SAGE models: Doomsday scenarios that say third wave deaths might soar HIGHER than spring and masks might be needed for a YEAR are ‘too pessimistic’ and ‘cherry pick’ worst assumptions 

SAGE’s doomsday models which predicted more than a thousand coronavirus deaths at the peak of a third wave this summer have been criticised for cherry-picking ‘very pessimistic assumptions’ to arrive at a nightmare scenario. 

Independent experts told MailOnline the data used by the Government’s scientific advisers ‘didn’t match’ how well the vaccine rollout is going and played down how effective the jabs are – and at least one was ‘very confident the NHS is not going to be overwhelmed’. 

Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, said SAGE had repeatedly made bleak forecasts that never came true, ‘perhaps to avoid complacency’ among the public.  

The government was yesterday accused of using ‘Project Fear’ tactics to prolong coronavirus restrictions by stealth with plans for mass twice-weekly testing, vaccine passports and foreign travel restrictions.

But SAGE papers also reveal that No10 believes the most likely scenario is that any third wave of Covid this summer is most likely to be manageable, with deaths staying in double figures or the the low hundreds and hospitalisations well below previous peaks.  

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‘It was not clear which evidence the introduction of this measure was based on, nor what evidence is that supports it still being in place,’ she added. 

The group has the backing of Tory lockdown sceptics including MP Steve Baker, who formed the Covid Recovery Group last November to argue that the then ongoing second national shutdown was unnecessary.  

Last month, more than 30 furious backbenchers wrote to the Prime Minister to demand the mask mandate in schools was dropped at Easter. 

Philip Davies, one of the letter’s signatories, told the Telegraph that the decision to continue with masks in the summer term was ‘stupid’ and said ‘there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they make any real difference’. 

‘This control freakery and authoritarianism does not show the Government in a very good light or a very sensible light,’ he said. 

The latest DfE attendance data found that around 87 per cent of secondary school pupils were in class on March 25, a fall on March 18 when 89 per cent attended.

According to the DfE, the main reason for absence among pupils who did not attend school for Covid-19-related reasons was self-isolation due to contact with a possible case inside the school.

All other safety measures will also remain in place in schools and colleges – including regulator asymptomatic testing, smaller group bubbles, increased hygiene, ventilation, and social distancing where possible, the DfE said.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: ‘We urged the Government not to relax this measure at this early stage and welcome the fact that our recommendation was taken on board. This is a sensible approach.

‘Many other countries currently have stronger policies in place, and it would have been reckless to risk a resurgence of the virus, particularly when it is apparent that the face coverings policy is being well adhered to and is not causing any significant disruption.’

Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, said: ‘Wearing face coverings isn’t ideal, but they’re a valuable safety measure and will be needed for a while longer to allow schools to stay open.

‘Keeping staff, pupils and their families safe and stopping wider infection spread is the most important thing. Any further decisions must be made according to the infection data, rather than dates.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘The health advice on the wearing of face coverings by secondary school pupils in classrooms is clear and we therefore support the new guidance issued today.

‘However, the use of face coverings is clearly not ideal in a classroom setting as it has the capacity to disrupt education and it is not something we want to see going on any longer than is absolutely necessary. 

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE maths class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE maths class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

Year 11 students, wearing face coverings, take part in a GCSE maths class at Park Lane Academy in Halifax, northwest England on March 8, 2021

‘We hope that the continued excellent progress with vaccinations mean it is no longer necessary for students to wear face coverings in lessons when the Government announces the next stage in the easing of restrictions in May.’

Mr Williamson, the education secretary, said: ‘Schools and students have done a great job adapting to Covid-secure guidance and working hard to make sure it doesn’t impact learning.

‘We obviously all want to get back to facemask-free classrooms and we will do this in line with the latest scientific data while balancing the interests of students, teachers and the wider community.’

Those who are currently exempt from wearing face masks will remain so, including pupils and teachers who are speaking to, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip-reading or facial expression to communicate.

Professor John Simpson, head of Public Health Advice, Guidance and Expertise Pillar (PHAGE) at Public Health England, said: ‘The return to school after Easter will allow us to continue monitoring the impacts of measures to reduce the spread of Covid, as we encourage families to test regularly.

‘Wearing face coverings in secondary schools is an extra control measure to reduce the risk of transmission to support children continuing their education in the classroom.’    

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