A school leaders’ union has recommended all secondary schools ask pupils and staff to wear face coverings in communal spaces, despite Government advice that it is only required for those in local lockdown areas of England.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said ministers were following the “best scientific and medical advice”, adding that it was not necessary for face coverings to be mandatory in all schools across the country.
But in a message to members of school leaders’ union NAHT, general secretary Paul Whiteman said it would be “prudent” for masks to be used more widely.
He criticised the Government for “pass(ing) the buck” to secondary schools and colleges, who have been given the discretion to require masks if social distancing cannot be safely managed.
“Once again, many school leaders will feel as though the Government has passed the buck and handed the difficult decision over to them,” he said.
“We will continue to lobby the Government to take a clear and unambiguous line on this.
“In the meantime, NAHT’s advice is that it would be prudent for secondary schools to ask pupils and staff to wear face coverings in corridor and communal spaces unless there is a compelling reason not to.
“Erring on the side of caution would seem a sensible approach to take given the information coming out of the WHO (World Health Organisation).”
In the latest U-turn by the Government, updated guidance issued on Tuesday evening said face coverings should be worn in communal areas of schools with students in Year 7 and above which are in areas with coronavirus restrictions.
It followed pressure from teaching unions, which urged clarity before pupils return to school next week, and an announcement from Scotland that all secondary pupils there will be required to wear masks in between lessons.
On Monday, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”.
— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) August 25, 2020
Mr Williamson then reiterated that masks were not required due to extra measures being adopted by schools, while a Number 10 spokesman said there were no plans to review the guidance.
When asked what had changed, Mr Williamson told Sky News on Wednesday: “We always follow and listen to the best scientific and medical advice, and that’s why we’re not recommending that face coverings should be mandatory right across the country in all schools.
“The best scientific and medical advice says that that isn’t necessary.”
He said the Government is following recommendations by WHO, which advises that masks should be worn by children over the age of 12.
Coronavirus restrictions remain in place in areas of Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Leicester, Luton and Northampton.
Measures in parts of northern England are expected to continue when they are reviewed on Thursday but could be more tightly targeted and focused on smaller areas, suggesting areas in lockdown could be subject to change.
Face coverings do not need to be worn in classrooms, as other protective measures will already be in place and they might affect learning, according to the guidance.
Exemptions include those who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment or disability.
Post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland will be asked to wear face coverings in corridors and other communal areas from 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.