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The new rules on Covid face coverings for secondary schools in England explained


Face masks are returning to secondary school classrooms in England under new Covid rules designed to combat the Omicron variant.

Nadhim Zahawi said the Government is taking steps to “bolster our support for schools” when students return to classes after the Christmas holidays.

However, critics say the wearing of face coverings could have “significant impact on children’s well-being,” while other support measures have been branded “completely inadequate”.

Here’s how the new rules work and what the Covid situation looks like as pupils prepare to head back to school for the new term.

What are the new rules on face masks in schools?

Secondary school and college pupils in England will now be told to wear face masks in classrooms, the Department for Education (DfE) has announced.

The wearing of face coverings was previously advised in communal areas for pupils in year 7 and above, but the new advice extends this to lessons.

Until this point, England was the only one of the four UK nations which didn’t recommend masks in classrooms.

Additionally, a further 7,000 new air purifiers are also being distributed to schools where good ventilation is difficult.

The DfE said the new rules, which apply only to children in year 7 and above, would remain in place until 26 January.

England was previously the only UK nation not to recommend face masks in lessons (Photo: Reuters)

That marks the date that England’s current Plan B Covid restrictions are due to expire, with a review due this week.

Mr Zahawi, the Education Secretary, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that Omicron “presents challenges,” but: “There can be no excuse for our children not learning face to face in the classroom where they want and need to be.”

However, education committee chairman Robert Halfon questioned the measures in comments to the same newspaper: “The Government needs to supply the evidence. If masks are not required in offices or restaurants, why are we getting young kids to put them on?”

The Government’s provision of air purifiers was condemned by Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union joint. She said that with “over 300,000 classrooms in England they have failed to provide an effective solution”.

And Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said ministers should have acted sooner.

He told the BBC: “We’re rather disappointed that we’re having the conversations this side of Christmas when we could have been making these arrangements earlier on.”

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Will schools close again?

Staff absences towards the end of last term and the ongoing high rate of Covid infections in the UK have led to fears that schools could close in January.

The Education Secretary said “face-to-face teaching will continue to be the expected norm” when term starts, adding that “exams will go ahead as planned”.

However, Mr Zahawi wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that spread of Omicron means that “it is unavoidable” that some students and teachers will have to self-isolate, meaning “that some remote learning will be necessary”.

He added “The Prime Minister could not be clearer: education is our number one priority and we will do everything in our power as a government to minimise the disruption to schools.”

Headteachers have said that “difficult decisions” would have to be made due to staff shortages after the Christmas holidays.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told i: “Much as with every sector, there is clearly the potential for a very challenging situation in education with regards to staffing in January.

“Schools and colleges were already seeing significant levels of staff absence caused by Covid-19 before the Christmas holidays and it may be that the impact of the Omicron variant will make matters worse in the new term.”

Mr Barton insisted that schools would do their “very best to minimise the impact of disruption on pupils”, but added: “The reality is that if there aren’t enough staff available difficult decisions may need to be made.

“Where staffing levels are severely impacted this may involve having to send home some classes or year groups for short periods of time to learn remotely rather than teaching them in-school.”

The Government has maintained that there are no plans for blanket closures of schools, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman previously saying they would remain open unless there is “an absolute public health emergency,” while Mr Zahawi has promised schools will “always be the last to close”.

A spokesperson for the DfE said last week: “We know children and young people want to be in the classroom and it is the very best place for their education and well-being, which is why protecting face-to-face education continues to be an absolute priority.”

Additional reporting from Press Association

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