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No review of face mask rules in English schools, says minister

The Guardian logo The Guardian 25/08/2020 Simon Murphy Political correspondent
a person sitting on a wooden surface: Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

The business secretary, Alok Sharma, has said there are no plans to review the wearing of face masks in English schools despite a plea from headteachers.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), a trade union that represents more than 19,000 senior staff, has called on the government to review its guidance on the use of face coverings in schools.

It comes as the Scottish government confirmed on Tuesday that secondary schools would be given “obligatory guidance” that pupils should wear face coverings in corridors, communal areas and school buses from next Monday.

The World Health Organization and Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, says those aged 12 and over should wear masks to help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

a person sitting on a wooden surface: Students at the Kingsdale Foundation school in south London wear masks as they pick up their GCSEs but there are no plans to review guidance over their use in English schools. © Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA Students at the Kingsdale Foundation school in south London wear masks as they pick up their GCSEs but there are no plans to review guidance over their use in English schools.

With English schools due to reopen next month, Sharma said on Tuesday the UK government had no plans to review wearing face masks in schools. It followed a similar statement from Downing Street on Monday.

“Firstly, I think it’s really vital that we get all schoolchildren back in September. And when it comes to face coverings, we have followed the scientific advice and medical advice that we’ve been getting and we’ve made it very clear that in certain settings, such as transport or in shops, it is mandatory,” Sharma told Sky News.

“But Public Health England has provided advice that has been consistent throughout and, of course, schools have been open throughout this pandemic period serving, taking care of vulnerable children, the children of key workers … but Public Health England has been very clear, which is that they do not recommend the wearing of face masks in schools and the reason for this is because children, pupils are obviously mixing in the same cohorts.


Video: "Scottish Government consults on wearing face coverings in high schools" (Evening Standard)

"Scottish Government consults on wearing face coverings in high schools"
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“We’ve also provided, through Public Health England, guidance in terms of how schools can keep children safe, how they can keep teachers safe, how schools can be secure, Covid-secure environments. So there is no current plan to review that particular guidance.”

Sharma highlighted statistics from PHE showing that in June there were on average around a million children in preschool and primary settings and there were 70 incidents of infection. “The chances of being infected in school are incredibly low,” Sharma said. “In fact, the chance of being infected are higher outside of a school setting.”

On Monday, No 10 said it was not changing its guidance on masks in schools in England. “Our guidance does not recommend face masks in school, we acknowledge face coverings could obstruct communication between teachers and pupils,” a spokesman said.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL, had told the Daily 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 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.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said staff and students should be allowed to wear face masks if they wish.

“We have to stay abreast of the science, so when the World Health Organization says that children over 12 should wear masks in communal areas at school, that ought to be listened to.

“The WHO also recommends that staff over 60 or otherwise vulnerable should be wearing a medical grade mask, and the government should be looking at the science on that as well. It is vital we keep the R rate below 1. We want schools open but we want staff and students to be protected as well.

“As things currently stand in England, the NEU believes it should be permissible for staff members and students to wear face masks if they wish to do so.”

The National Association of Head Teachers urged the Westminster government to watch and learn from events in Scotland, where children are already back in school.

A spokesman said: “At present, the scientific advice in England does not recommend the use of face coverings in schools. Where there are individual members of staff or pupils who feel the need to wear a mask in order to feel safe enough to come to school, then we have confidence that our members would be able to make a sensible decision and allow that.

“We recommend that the government keeps the scientific advice under review and keeps a close eye on the Scottish system. Their school return is a couple of weeks ahead of where we are in England, and there could well be useful things to learn from what they are experiencing north of the border.”

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