Masks return to English classrooms

New government guidance on wearing masks, as well as other measures designed to help limit the spread of coronavirus in schools, have been dismissed as inadequate by teaching unions

As schools across the country reopen today, pupils in year seven and above are once again being asked to wear masks in the classroom.

In response to the ongoing rise in Omicron coronavirus cases, new guidance from the Department for Education says that students in England should also don a face covering when travelling on dedicated school buses, as well as public transport.

While students and adults alike are advised to wear a mask when moving around school premises outside of classrooms, the guidance states that “we would not ordinarily expect teachers to wear a face covering in the classroom if they are at the front of the class”.

The guidance is temporary and will be reviewed when Plan B regulations expire on 26 January. A recommendation for secondary pupils to wear masks brings English policy in line with ones already in place in the other UK nations.

The government is also calling on schools to uphold a strict Covid testing regime.

“Testing remains a priority,” said education secretary Nadhim Zahawi in an open letter to education and childcare leaders.

“All secondary school students should undertake one on-site test on return to boost testing participation and help reduce transmission after a period of social mixing over the holidays.”

With rates of absence likely to be high among teaching staff in the coming term, the government is calling on schools to adopt a fluid approach to teaching, including combining classes.

“Flexible delivery involves utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils,” said Zahawi.

The recommendation on wearing face masks in secondary school classrooms is overdue, but it should be a requirement – Dr Mary Bousted, NEU

In other measures, the government has promised an additional 7,000 air cleaning units for schools, colleges and early years settings with ventilation issues. Ofsted inspections due to take place in the first week of term have been postponed, with schools encouraged to ask for a deferral if they are “significantly impacted by COVID-related staff absence”.

Six school staff unions, including the National Education Union (NEU), have said that further action is urgently required to repress the spread of the virus, and warned that national exams are currently at risk.

“Finally, the government have been forced to recognise, and react to, the scale of the Omicron variant and its potential impact on education,” said Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU. “The recommendation on wearing face masks in secondary school classrooms is overdue, but it should be a requirement.

“Seven thousand more air purifiers is something, but it is completely inadequate for what should be a basic human right, the provision of clean air in every classroom in every educational setting. The fact that the government has provided the extra purifiers shows that it recognises the problem, but with over 300,000 classrooms in England it has failed to provide an effective solution.

“It is hard to see how Ofsted will function without the services of serving head teachers. Rather than limping along, Ofsted should suspend all inspections other than safeguarding concerns. Given the current, sky-high rates of infection, every school will be significantly affected by Covid. The focus should be on the essential aim of providing education continuity for as many pupils as possible, not on jumping through Ofsted hoops.”

The NEU leader’s concerns over staffing levels were echoed by Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union.

“We still need to see a credible and funded plan from the government that will deliver immediate support and flexibility for those schools experiencing teacher shortages at the very start of term,” he said. “Action by the government is also needed to end the fundamentally broken supply agency market which is failing schools and contributing to thousands of supply teachers prematurely leaving the profession.”

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