The Department for Education has confirmed face masks will not be compulsory in classrooms following the partial closure of schools.
This new guidance is at odds with statements made by a senior DfE official last month who told school leaders the department’s plan was to make it compulsory for pupils in year 7 and upwards, as well as their teachers, to wear face masks in the classroom.
Since the comments, the nation has been put into a third lockdown with school closed to most pupils. New guidance published today on face coverings states that it will “not usually be necessary to wear face coverings in the classroom, where protective measures already mean the risks are lower, and they may inhibit teaching and learning”.
As before, face coverings are only recommended to be worn for adults and pupils in secondary school communal areas “where social distancing is difficult to maintain”.
When asked to explain why the decision is at odds with what a senior official told sector representatives at a briefing on back-to-school plans, the DfE refused to explain.
A spokesperson would only say they continue to keep all protective measures under review and that its latest guidance is up to date.
Some schools had already made the decision to move towards face masks before the latest lockdown was announced.
The Northern Education Trust had asked secondary pupils to wear them during lessons, following anxiety over the new Covid strain.
The refusal to mandate face coverings in the classroom seems to go against calls from government scientists, who had previously told ministers the use of face masks in schools may be necessary as the new variant of Covid causes cases to surge.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advised ministers on December 22 that it is “highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November [with schools open] would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant”.
Notes from a further meeting the following day state it “may be necessary to extend the use of face coverings to a wider number of settings (e.g. workplaces and education) where they are not currently mandated”.
“This is important even when people are more than 2m apart, as correctly worn face coverings also reduce the emission rate of small aerosols.”
The DfE’s updated Covid guidance document states that in classrooms “maintaining a distance between people while inside and reducing the amount of time they are in face to face contact lowers the risk of transmission.”
And that schools should make “small adaptations to the classroom to support distancing where possible” – these include seating pupils side by side rather than “face to face”.