Schools perplexed after PM's mask ruling goes against SAGE advice

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

Boris Johnson acted to axe rules on wearing face masks in secondary schools just days after government scientists emphasised the “importance of maintaining current mitigation measures in schools, such as testing and mask-wearing, in the coming months”.

School leaders are perplexed at the timing of the prime minister’s announcement on Monday (May 10), especially in light of concern over three Indian variants that have appeared in the UK, including one that has been officially designated a “variant of concern”.

Mr Johnson confirmed – in line with step 3 of his roadmap out of lockdown – that from Monday, May 17, young people will no longer be required to wear face masks in classrooms or communal areas in secondary schools and colleges.

Staff will no longer be required to wear face coverings in the classroom, but should continue to wear them in communal areas where social distancing may not be possible, the Department for Education has said. Official guidance has been updated (DfE, 2021a)

A DfE statement shortly after the prime minister’s announcement said: “Transmission of the virus in schools continues to decrease in line with wider community transmission, with the latest statistics showing a significant drop in the number of teachers and staff testing positive. The decision has taken into consideration the latest scientific evidence, medical advice and stakeholder feedback on the impacts of wearing face coverings in schools and colleges.” (DfE, 2021b)

However, the statement seems at odds with the Consensus Statement published by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling – a sub-group of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE, 2021).

The statement reports that lateral flow test positivity has increased in schools since the March 8 re-opening and also refers to a “modest increase” in positivity in school-age children. It concludes: “This highlights the importance of maintaining current mitigation measures in schools, such as testing and mask-wearing, in the coming months.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said there were arguments both for and against pupils wearing face masks in classrooms and as such “any decision over their continued use should be based firmly upon scientific advice”.

He continued: “However, the government’s decision to relax the rules around face masks in secondary schools and colleges is hard to reconcile with the evidence published by SAGE on Friday. This evidence quite clearly said that it was important to maintain the current mitigation measures in schools, including mask-wearing, in the coming months.

“It is obviously better for communication and learning if masks aren’t required in classrooms, but any decision to this effect must follow the scientific advice, and it is very worrying that the government’s decision appears to contradict the published evidence.”

Mr Barton said the masks decision was “particularly troublesome” in light of the fact that a Covid strain first detected in India has recently been declared a “variant of concern” by Public Health England (2021). “This would suggest the need for greater caution,” he said.

There are three so-called Indian variants that have been identified in the UK. One is labelled a variant of concern, two are variants “under investigation”. The latest figures from Public Health England show that between April 29 and May 5, a further 390 cases were detected. The total number of India variant cases detected as of May 5 stands at 790 (PHE, 2021).

Mr Barton continued: “It seems to us that school and college leaders are once again being placed in a very difficult position because many parents and staff will obviously feel that pupils should continue to wear masks regardless of what the government thinks. For the sake of a few more weeks all this unnecessary anxiety could have been avoided and we don’t understand why the government is in such a rush over this issue.”

It comes as the latest figures (DfE, 2021c) show that state school attendance has dropped to 92 per cent as of May 5 – down from 93 per cent on April 29. This has been driven by secondary schools, in which attendance dropped to 89 per cent on May 5 (from 90 per cent on April 29).

However, less than 0.1 per cent of secondary students are currently confirmed to have Covid-19, with a further 0.2 per cent off school with suspected cases. Covid-related pupil absence in state-funded schools has remained steady at one per cent on May 5.

Commenting on the figures, Mr Barton added: “There are clearly concerns over the emergence of variant strains of the Covid virus. All of this reminds us that there is still some way to go but we would reassure people that schools and colleges have in place very robust and effective control measures to reduce the risk of transmission. They have done an extremely good job in navigating through these difficult circumstances.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “The further, albeit small, decline in school attendance this week shows that we are far from out of the woods yet when it comes to the pandemic and disruption to school life. The work schools are doing to keep attendance numbers high should not be taken for granted. Delivering complex safety arrangements while also providing a settled learning environment for pupils remains an on-going challenge.

"The fact that we have seen a growing number of pupils needing to self-isolate raises further questions about the government’s apparent willingness to ignore the advice from scientists, including SAGE, when it comes to face coverings. No-one wants to see restrictions in school for longer than is necessary, but nor do we want to see the progress of recent months put at risk.”

Teaching and support staff unions have also voiced concerns. UNISON’s head of education Jon Richards said the move was “too much, too soon”. He added: “Everyone wants to get back to normality, but any change has to happen safely. Otherwise, all the care taken over the past few months in schools could be undone. Face masks will still be needed in other indoor spaces like shops, restaurants and cinemas. Schools and colleges shouldn't be treated any differently. New virus variants are out in the community. Yet despite repeated requests ministers have failed to reveal the extent of the new strains in schools.”

A coalition of unions, including the National Education Union, NASUWT and UNISON, as well as a number of scientific experts and others have written to education secretary Gavin Williamson warning that 43,000 children and 114,000 teaching and education staff could be suffering from Long Covid and urging him to keep mask requirements in place (NEU, 2021).

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: "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. 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.”

However, Mr Williamson said lifting the mask requirements was the “right step”. He added: “Testing in schools and colleges continues to be important, so I urge all students, families and teachers to keep testing themselves twice weekly, to help reduce the risk of transmission.”

John Simpson, head of Public Health Advice, Guidance and Expertise (PHAGE) at Public Health England, said: “Scientific studies show that Covid-19 transmission in schools remains low. This evidence has been reviewed alongside criteria for the wider easing of restrictions.

“It’s important to strike a balance between Covid-19 protection and student wellbeing and the guidance on face coverings for secondary school pupils has been kept under constant review. Existing control measures in schools including good ventilation, hand-washing, social distancing where possible and twice weekly testing remain hugely important.”


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