Unions seize on 11th hour demands for face masks in schools

Unions seize on 11th hour demands that Boris Johnson introduces facemasks in schools as headteachers call for clarity days before classrooms reopen – after Nicola Sturgeon said she was preparing to make them compulsory

  • WHO and Unicef said this weekend that over-12s should wear face coverings 
  • Prompted Ms Sturgeon to announce a review of their use in Scottish schools
  • UK government has repeatedly said face masks in schools are not necessary 
  • Risk of children falling badly ill is ‘very small’ and masks would ‘harm learning’

Teaching unions have seized on 11th-hour demands for Boris Johnson to introduce face masks in schools after Nicola Sturgeon said she was preparing to make them compulsory, risking another row just days before schools are due to reopen. 

The First Minister announced yesterday she plans to require face coverings in corridors and shared areas at Scotland’s secondary schools, saying she was acting on new guidance from the World Health Organisation. 

The Association of School and College Leaders immediately called on the Prime Minister to follow suit in reviewing their use, putting it on a collision course with the Government as it tries to reassure parents and pupils that classrooms are safe. 

Mr Johnson has said there are no plans to review the use of face masks, insisting that the risk of children falling badly ill from Covid is ‘very, very, very, very, very small indeed’ and that face masks would hamper communication and learning. 


Boris Johnson says face masks are not necessary in schools, but Nicola Sturgeon has announced their use will be reviewed in Scotland 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and children’s charity Unicef this weekend issued guidance that children aged 12 and over should wear face coverings like adults, particularly if they cannot stay six feet apart from others. 

Ms Sturgeon immediately launched a review of their use in Scottish schools, and said they would probably have to be worn in areas such as ‘corridors and communal areas’.

In response, the Association of School and College Leaders called on Mr Johnson to conduct his own review, in a move that will frustrate the government as it tries to persuade pupils and parents to overcome their concerns about safety. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, told The Telegraph: ‘We would expect the Government in Westminster to review its guidance on the use of face coverings in schools, which currently says they are not required, in light of the WHO guidance and the consultation that is taking place in Scotland.

‘The evidence is clearly evolving on this issue and it is important that it is kept under review and that clear direction is provided to schools.’

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the use of face masks in schools should be kept under review. YouGov found 52 percent of respondents to an online poll thought secondary school children should wear masks. 

Gavin Williamson promises all schools will get stock of Covid home tests ahead of next week’s reopening 

Under-fire Gavin Williamson today broke cover to guarantee every school in England will be supplied with coronavirus home tests to hand out to parents when they reopen next week.

The Education Secretary used an interview to pledge that teachers would be able to send ill children home with a kit so that a family member can use it to quickly determine whether they have Covid-19.

Staff will also be allowed to use the swab kits under guidance that says they should be handed out by teachers ‘where they think providing one will significantly increase the likelihood of them (the ill person) getting tested.’

Under guidance issued by the Department for Education, if the child tests negative either using a home kit or after visiting a testing centre they can return to school with the minimum of disruption.

If they test positive they quarantine at home while the school takes steps to limit the spread.

But many have questioned whether every school getting Covid-19 home testing kits before September is an achievable feat in the first place – with sceptical parents vowing to hold the Education Secretary to his word.

General Secretary of the Teachers’ Union Dr Patrick Roach said: ‘We wait with interest to see more detail about the Education Secretary’s promise of home testing kits for use by schools.

‘It is important that this latest announcement from Ministers delivers on substance and that there is an adequate supply of testing kits to help keep schools safe not just on the first day back at school but throughout the term and beyond.’

The Department for Education maintains that even though children over 11 will be expected to cover their faces on school buses, they will not be necessary after arriving.

And the Government yesterday underscored its message.

On widening the use of masks in English schools, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: ‘We are not in a position where we are suggesting that, because we believe there is a system of controls that are there in place for all schools for children to be able to return safely and for staff to be able to operate safely within those schools.’

Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was ‘not strong’. 

Mr Johnson has said the Government are launching a huge push to ensure all school children get back to school next week when the autumn term starts.

The PM has insisted that it is safe for schools to return and the risks of the virus to children are low, but unions are still concerned about the lack of safety precautions – suggesting that pupils and staff should wear masks outside the classroom.

The WHO says children aged 12 and over ‘should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular where they cannot guarantee at least a one metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area’.

But the Department for Education says heads must not force pupils or staff to wear them.

Its guidance says the benefits from wearing masks on public transport or in shops do not apply to the school environment, and misuse could increase the risk of transmissions. 

And there are also worries about the impact of masks on teaching and communication, especially for children with learning difficulties.

Instead, ‘changing habits, cleaning and hygiene are effective measure for controlling the spread of the virus’, it says.

Exceptions are where children require intimate care, or if they become unwell with coronavirus symptoms and teachers are unable to maintain a two-metre distance.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: ‘If a school puts in place the measures that are in the guidance that we issued in early July… then masks are not necessary for staff or pupils.’

The Department for Education said: ‘We have consistently followed Public Health England advice, which does not recommend the use of face coverings in schools because there are a range of protective measures in place, including children staying in consistent groups.

‘We have set out the system of controls schools should use, including cleaning and hygiene measures, to substantially reduce the risk of transmission of the virus when they open to all children in the coming weeks.’ 

Pupils wear face masks at a school in Belfast yesterday after returning to school for the first time since March 

Under-fire Gavin Williamson yesterday broke cover to guarantee every school in England will be supplied with coronavirus home tests to hand out to parents when they reopen next week.

The Education Secretary used an interview to pledge that teachers would be able to send ill children home with a kit so that a family member can use it to quickly determine whether they have Covid-19.

Staff will also be allowed to use the swab kits under guidance that says they should be handed out by teachers ‘where they think providing one will significantly increase the likelihood of them (the ill person) getting tested.’

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries says pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus than catch Covid 

Pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus on their way to school than catch coronavirus in the classroom, the deputy chief medical officer claimed yesterday.

Dr Jenny Harries said the risk of children being involved in a traffic accident or of catching the flu are ‘probably higher than the current risk’ posed by the deadly virus.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Nick Gibb this morning insisted parents will be fined if they refuse to send their children back to school next week.

He also said the Government is sticking by its advice to teachers that they do not need to wear masks despite a growing row with unions over staff safety.

Public Health England data has shown that teachers are more likely to be infected than their pupils, after one in 23,000 students tested positive during the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays.

 

Under guidance issued by the Department for Education, if the child tests negative either using a home kit or after visiting a testing centre they can return to school with the minimum of disruption.

If they test positive they quarantine at home while the school takes steps to limit the spread.

But many have questioned whether every school getting Covid-19 home testing kits before September is an achievable feat in the first place – with sceptical parents vowing to hold the Education Secretary to his word.

General Secretary of the Teachers’ Union Dr Patrick Roach said: ‘We wait with interest to see more detail about the Education Secretary’s promise of home testing kits for use by schools.

‘It is important that this latest announcement from Ministers delivers on substance and that there is an adequate supply of testing kits to help keep schools safe not just on the first day back at school but throughout the term and beyond.’

Ministers have that it will be compulsory for pupils to attend classes, with the risk of fines for parents who did not comply – although Mr Williamson said they would only be used as a last resort.

Local authorities can fine parents £120 – cut to £60 if paid within 21 days – over a child’s absence from school, with the threat of prosecution if they fail to pay.

 Mr Williamson said: ‘In terms of fining, we would ask all schools to work with those parents, encourage them to bring their children back, deal with concerns that they have and fining would be very much the last resort, as it has always been.’

Public Health England data showed the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays resulted in just one in 23,000 children catching coronavirus.

Some 70 children tested positive out of more than 1.6 million who were in class, with many confirmed as having the disease actually being asymptomatic.

But some 128 staff members tested positive, with most transmission believed to have taken place between adults.

Public Health England data has shown that teachers are more likely to be infected than their pupils, after one in 23,000 students tested positive during the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays.

Yesterday, 17 staff and two pupils have tested positive for coronavirus at a school in Dundee just two weeks after schools in Scotland reopened following lockdown.  

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