Masks: Secondary schools welcome new discretionary powers

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Secondary school leaders and teachers have welcomed new discretionary powers that will allow them to decide whether face masks should be worn in school.

The Department for Education (DfE) confirmed today (Wednesday, August 26) that “schools and colleges will have the discretion to require face coverings in communal areas where social distancing cannot be safely managed, if they believe that it is right in their particular circumstances”.

It has released new guidance for staff and children in year 7 or above in England (DfE, 2020).

The guidance states that it will not be necessary to wear face coverings in the classroom. It adds: “(In the classroom) there is greater use of the system of controls for minimising risk, including through keeping in small and consistent groups or bubbles, and greater scope for physical distancing by staff within classrooms. Face coverings can have a negative impact on learning and teaching and so their use in the classroom should be avoided.”

However, schools can decide to require masks to be worn in corridors, communal and other areas.

The guidance says that schools might decide to require masks if the layout of communal areas makes social distancing difficult or if school leaders feel that such a policy would help to boost parental confidence to send their children back to school. However, it warns that “no-one should be excluded from education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering” and that schools should have “a small contingency supply available”.

It comes after the World Health Organisation published a statement on August 21 (WHO, 2020) advising that “children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area”.

The Scottish and Northern Ireland governments, also reacting to the latest WHO advice, decided earlier this week to make face coverings mandatory for all pupils aged 12. This requirement will come into force in both nations on Monday (August 31).

The DfE guidance says that in areas where transmission of Covid-19 is high (as detailed by the Department of Health’s local restrictions list – see further information), face coverings “should be worn by adults and pupils in secondary schools when moving around the school, such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing is difficult to maintain”.

However, the guidance warns that staff and pupils must be encouraged to wear and store their masks properly, and signposts schools to further Cabinet Office guidance on using masks (2020).

The DfE guidance states: “It is vital that that face coverings are worn correctly and that clear instructions are provided to staff, children and young people on how to put on, remove, store and dispose of face coverings in all of the circumstances above, to avoid inadvertently increasing the risks of transmission.

“Safe wearing of face coverings requires cleaning of hands before and after touching – including to remove or put them on – and the safe storage of them in individual, sealable plastic bags between use. Where a face covering becomes damp, it should not be worn and the face covering should be replaced carefully.”

Education secretary, Gavin Williamson said: “Our priority is to get children back to school safely. At each stage, we have listened to the latest medical and scientific advice. We have therefore decided to follow WHO’s new advice.

“In local lockdown areas children in year 7 and above should wear face coverings in communal spaces. Outside of local lockdown areas face coverings won’t be required in schools, though schools will have the flexibility to introduce measures if they believe it is right in their specific circumstances. I hope these steps will provide parents, pupils and teachers with further reassurance.”

Welcoming the news, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It was inevitable that the policy on face coverings would change following guidance from the WHO. The new policy is discretionary, other than in places where coronavirus restrictions apply, and secondary school and college leaders will welcome the flexibility this affords them to decide what best suits their circumstances.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: "What is vital now is to keep the R rate below 1, and that means continuing to do all that we can to ensure case numbers remain low. So, if the World Health Organisation says that 12 years old and above should be wearing face masks in communal school areas, then our government needs to look at that very seriously.

"It does matter, however, that there is a lack of confidence when ministers and senior medical advisers say different things for four days. This is no sort of assurance for the profession, parents or the public. The government should have been looking at that WHO advice, coming to a considered position and then presenting it to the public. The alternative has been slow, incoherent, and a failure of leadership.

"We welcome the steps now being taken, but it is a halfway house to pass the decision to headteachers. There has to be a science-led approach from the top. It might be that face masks in communal areas are a good thing in parts of the country with high transmission, it might be that they are not as necessary in areas of low transmission. The government needs to decide on that and give clear guidance to school leaders.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, added: “It is deeply regrettable that the government has failed to heed concerns until the last possible moment. The latest announcement on face coverings raises serious questions about whether the government is seriously following the scientific advice or is simply prioritising political expediency in order to meet the prime minister’s wish to ensure that every school reopens fully at the start of term come what may.

“Face masks and visors can help in the battle against Coronavirus if used correctly, but they are not a substitute for stringent social distancing, good hand hygiene and enhanced cleaning of surfaces by appropriately trained staff.”

However, a word of warning has been sounded by the National Deaf Children’s Society, reminding schools of the negative impact that masks can have for the UK’s 50,000 or so deaf children. The charity has urged schools to consider investing in clear masks to help aide communication.


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