A surge in Covid-19 cases across north-west England has meant some secondary school pupils and college students will continue wearing face masks, even after the government’s announcement that masks are no longer required.
The BBC said this follows concerns over the Indian variant of the virus spreading across the UK. Councils in Lancashire, Bolton and Bury have advised students to use face masks until 21 June.
The headmistress of an independent school in Bolton said they will continue to follow the latest health advice.
“In Bolton the local guidance is that we must remain wearing face coverings and so we are doing so,” said Sue Hincks, headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division. “We are fully supportive of everything our local health authorities are doing to ensure that we remain Covid-secure despite the spike in local cases.”
On 10 May, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that pupils will no longer be required to wear face masks in schools and colleges from 17 May. This is due to Covid-19 infection rates continuing to decrease, deaths and hospitalisations being at their lowest level since July, and the vaccine rollout continuing at pace.
Transmission of the virus in schools has decreased in line with wider community transmission, with statistics showing a “significant drop” in the number of teachers and staff testing positive.
The Department for Education said no longer wearing masks will “improve interaction between teachers and students”.
We are fully supportive of everything our local health authorities are doing to ensure that we remain Covid-secure despite the spike in local cases – Sue Hincks, Bolton School Girls’ Division
Head of Brighton Girls in East Sussex, Rosie McColl, said although pupils are no longer required to wear masks in school, they are going through a “transitional phase”.
“Following government guidelines, pupils are no longer required to wear masks anywhere in school. Teachers wear them in public areas and when they can’t be more than a metre from a pupil,” said McColl.
“Having said all that, we are finding that a fair amount of pupils still do wear masks, in public spaces and lessons. We believe this is a transitional phase and in time, all being well with Covid’s decline, that will gradually fall away.”
At Lewes Old Grammar School, also in East Sussex, pupils and staff can continue wearing masks if they wish but it is no longer required.
Head Robert Blewitt said: “The only time we do ask pupils to wear masks is when they are outside and transitioning between year group bubbles, for example when they are in the school café. They will continue to wear masks while travelling on school transport, however.
“Staff are required to wear masks whilst inside school, except for when they are in classrooms, their offices and at workstations. Of course, if a pupil or staff member chooses to continue wearing a mask, they will be supported in doing so.”
‘Not out of the woods yet’
However, a statement from modellers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on 7 May stated that lateral flow test positivity increased in schools in the three weeks from 8 March. There was also a modest increase in positivity in school-aged children in ONS’s Community Infection Survey. They advised maintaining mitigation measures in schools, such as testing and mask wearing “in the coming months”.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), responded to SAGE’s statement: “It is disappointing that Boris Johnson has ignored the advice of SAGE’s modellers to keep the use of face masks in the classroom, as well as communal areas in secondary schools and colleges.
“The NEU along with everyone else looks forward to the time when they are no longer necessary, but we are not out of the woods yet. Face masks help with suppressing transmission of the virus and therefore help to minimise the disruption caused when pupils or staff have to self-isolate.
“Schools and colleges are doing a very good job of keeping students and staff safe and they should be permitted to retain mask wearing in the classroom if they think it necessary for reasons such as a rise in local infection rates. This would be an entirely reasonable and responsible decision.”
Schools and colleges are doing a very good job of keeping students and staff safe and they should be permitted to retain mask wearing in the classroom if they think it necessary – Kevin Courtney, NEU
A survey of 2,058 parents by Parentkind between 11–17 May showed that 70% of parents strongly agree that secondary pupils should no longer need to wear face masks in classrooms. However, 24% strongly disagree with the removal of face masks in classrooms.
The majority of parents also want to see an end to twice weekly testing of teachers, pupils and their families, with 59% strongly disagreeing that the tests should continue; although 24% strongly agree that testing should continue.
Parentkind’s CEO, John Jolly, said: “It is important that, as a major education stakeholder and the one responsible for ensuring their child attends school equipped to meet the regulations, parent voice is not overlooked by policymakers.
“Heads and teachers should listen to [parents’] concerns and seek to reassure all parents about the provisions in place to minimise the risk of transmission.”
You might also like: One in five headteachers sped up retirement plans this year, survey finds