Face coverings should be worn by secondary pupils and staff in local lockdown areas of England, and at the discretion of post-primary schools across the country, the Government announced in another policy U-turn.
The Department for Education (DfE) advised that in areas under local restrictions, face coverings should be worn when moving around corridors and communal areas.
The new guidance came after pressure from teaching unions and followed Scotland’s announcement that secondary pupils there will be required to wear face coverings in between lessons.
While it has largely been welcomed, Labour described it as a “half baked U-turn”, arguing that masks should have been made compulsory in communal areas and that the buck had been passed back to schools.
Face coverings will not be recommended in English schools more widely, the Government said, but secondaries will have the discretion to require them to be worn by staff and children in Year 7 and above in communal areas.
Face coverings will not need to be worn in classrooms, because other protective measures will already be in place and they might affect learning, the DfE said.
The change follows World Health Organisation (WHO) advice that children aged over 12 should wear masks, the Government said.
Just this week Education Secretary Gavin Williamson insisted measures being adopted by schools to limit the spread of coronavirus meant masks were not required, and a Number 10 spokesman had said there were no plans to review the guidance.
But announcing the change in advice on Tuesday, Mr 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 the World Health Organisation’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.”
Full guidance has not yet been published, but is expected “shortly” the department said, and will come into effect from September 1.
In a warning that advice could change again, the DfE said stricter guidance could be issued for schools nationally if the rate of transmission increases across the country.
The advice will also apply to further education colleges and will be reflected in guidance to universities, the department said.
It will not apply in primary schools because the risks to children in those settings are lower, the DfE said.
Earlier Prime Minister Boris Johnson had hinted that guidance may change, as pressure grew on ministers.
Mr Johnson told reporters the Government will “look at the changing medical evidence as we go on”, adding: “If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan criticised the Conservatives for appearing only to make the decision following pressure.
He wrote on Twitter: “Our children must be able to return to school in a safe environment and I welcome the latest u-turn by the Govt – a step in the right direction.
“However, it is of huge concern that yet again the PM has had to be forced into following the advice of public health officials.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “Parents and schools needed clarity and leadership, but instead the Government have just passed the buck back to them.
“Face coverings should be compulsory in communal areas in schools.
“Instead of this half baked U-turn the Government should have given clear guidance and a plan to deliver it.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which had called on the Government to keep its advice under review, said the change was “inevitable”.
He said: “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.
“We look forward to seeing the full guidance as early as possible.”
Unison’s head of education Jon Richards said the change was a “welcome step forward” and that school staff who work closely with pupils and move between classes and bubbles “have particular challenges” which should be recognised by allowing them to wear face coverings.
Post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland will be asked to wear face coverings in corridors and other communal areas, Stormont’s education minister Peter Weir said on Tuesday.
The official guidance comes into effect on August 31 when schools there return on a full-time basis.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething said a decision on schoolchildren wearing face coverings will be made on Wednesday, but current guidance says masks are not being recommended.