Ministers should reinstate face masks in classrooms in England immediately to limit the spread of Covid in schools, a coalition of education unions representing teachers and support staff has urged.
A joint statement, from the National Education Union (NEU), Unison, GMB and Unite, has warned more pupils are “likely to be off self-isolating and missing out on face-to-face education” in the weeks to come.
Face coverings should be reintroduced in secondary schools and colleges in England and outdoor lessons should be encouraged to minimise any further disruption to education, the unions have urged.
The plea came after Government figures showed that the proportion of pupils attending state schools in England dropped in the week before half-term as more children were forced to self-isolate.
The statement says: “Education unions are deeply concerned that secondary school age students now have the highest rates of Covid-19 infection of all age groups, according to Public Health England (PHE) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, and those rates are rising.
“At the weekend, the Health Secretary acknowledged that ‘a huge proportion of the latest cases are in children’, that they pass on the virus to the local community and face risks from long Covid.
“That means over the next few weeks more children and young people are likely to be off self-isolating and missing out on face-to-face education.”
The unions are calling for the rollout of vaccinations for pupils, following the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) view that these are safe for those aged 12 and over.
The joint statement says: “Pupils should be offered the vaccine, as is already happening in many other countries, as soon as the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) gives its approval.
“Schools and colleges must be given the right support and resources to enable pupils to be vaccinated on site.”
The Department for Education (DfE) removed the requirement for secondary school and college pupils in England to wear face masks in class from May 17.
But the unions are calling on ministers to reintroduce the requirement “with immediate effect” to minimise the loss of face-to-face education.
It came after DfE statistics suggest that approximately 1.8% of all pupils on roll did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons on May 27, compared to 1.3% the previous week.
In the North West of England, 4% of pupils did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons.
Nearly a third (31%) of secondary school pupils and more than a fifth (21%) of primary school pupils in Bolton were absent linked to Covid-19 on the week before half-term, the figures show.
Ministers are being urged to undertake a review of the guidance on bubbles and the isolation of contacts given the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant – and to release data on the number of cases of the variant in schools, not just figures concerning outbreaks.
A Government spokeswoman said: “Attendance in schools remains high, and the data shows the steps we are taking to keep outbreaks of the Delta variant under control in schools are working.
“On top of robust measures in place across the country, such as increased ventilation in classrooms and keeping to small group bubbles, we have increased the availability of testing for staff and pupils in families in areas of high prevalence of the variant.”