Health

Secondary schools ask for clarity from UK government on face masks


Head teachers have called on the government to provide decisive guidance on face masks in secondary schools, saying that pupils could end up being excluded in disputes over face coverings.

Just days before all pupils are due to return to schools in England, there is still widespread confusion over the issue, which threatens to bring headteachers into conflict with parents.

On Tuesday, the government intervened to stop councils requiring children in primary schools in England to wear face masks when they return to school next week.

The move came after it emerged that Redbridge council in east London had advised headteachers to consider face coverings for primary school pupils in the borough as part of Covid health and safety measures.

Step 1, part 1

All pupils and college students return fully. People can meet one other person outside, not just for exercise. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor. The “stay at home” order will otherwise stay in place.

Step 1, part 2

Outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults will be allowed. The official stay at home order will end, but people will be encouraged to stay local. People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

Step 2

The official outline plan states that the next steps will rely on data, and the dates given mean “no earlier than”. In step two, there will be a reopening of non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and public buildings such as libraries and museums. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopening will be settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

Step 3

Again with the caveat “no earlier than 17 May”, depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.

Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens. Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households. Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.

For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer. Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.

Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

New government guidance for pupils returning to school next week states that children in primary school do not need to wear a face covering, but “recommends” that secondary school pupils should wear masks in classrooms without making it mandatory.

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Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it would be much easier if government guidance on face coverings in secondary schools was “black and white”.

He said: “If it is so significant that masks should be being worn, can we have that really clearly? Because it makes it much easier to say to a parent: ‘I’m sorry, that is part of the expectation just like wearing a school uniform, doing your homework and all the other stuff. This is more important than that and therefore you need to be wearing it.’”

Giving evidence to MPs on the Commons education committee, he said: “I’m hoping that people won’t get into disputes that lead to young people having to be excluded from school because they’re not prepared to wear a face mask.”

Responding to a report in the Telegraph that Redbridge had become the first council to suggest face masks for primary-age children, the government said the council should not be enforcing masks in primary schools.

“The guidance is only necessary for pupils from year 7 and the Department for Education is in contact with the local council on that matter,” a government spokesperson said. “Children in primary school should not be asked to wear face coverings when they return next week.”


A Redbridge council spokesperson said: “It is not true that we’ve instructed primary schools to tell pupils they must wear a mask upon their return to school next week. We merely advised primary schools to consider the use of face coverings indoors along with a wide range of other measures that would play a part in reducing the risk of transmission within schools. We will of course discuss the matter with the Department for Education.”

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Ian Bennett, the headteacher at Downshall primary school in Redbridge, said the local authority had shared all the scientific evidence on mask wearing but it had been left to headteachers to decide.

“I personally think it would be a retrograde step,” said Bennett. “Having done the risk assessment, children would be much more likely to leave masks lying around and to take them off. I think it would cause more problems than it would solve.”

He said masks in primary schools could inhibit learning when children were just beginning to learn phonics and how to pronounce different sounds and words. “I personally was very relieved to see the government had made it clear that primary school children are not expected to wear face masks.”

Another London primary school, which had originally asked children to wear face coverings while inside school buildings, withdrew the request after the government published its updated guidance. In a letter to parents on the school website, Susan Papas, the executive head teacher of Selsdon primary school in Croydon, south London, said staff were anxious and worried about returning to school.

“If you feel that your child would be safer wearing a mask in school, we will support you (and them) with this. We have disposable, child-sized masks for anyone who would like one.” The Guardian was unable to contact the school.

While the government guidance is clear on primary schools, the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons education committee, told MPs on Monday that the confusion in secondaries risked triggering “mask anarchy” in schools and called for definitive regulations. There is also a range of views among scientists. Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer in machine learning at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Many European countries, much of south- and south-east Asia, and many parts of the US recommend masks in primary schools for children six years and above.

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“While many countries are discussing the grade of mask in these settings, we’re so behind on policy on this that we’re still debating the need for these basic tried and tested measures.”



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