Fact check: Can ministers stop schools keeping masks in place?

Everything you need to know about what the latest guidance actually means

Everything you need to know about what the latest guidance actually means

21 Jan 2022, 13:53

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Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has reportedly warned the government will contact headteachers who defy government advice by keeping masks in the classroom.

The Department for Education (DfE) lifted its recommendation that face coverings be worn in the classroom yesterday, following a last-minute announcement from prime minister Boris Johnson.

Coverings will no longer be recommended in communal areas from Thursday (January 27).

Secondary schools across the country announced that they would be keeping the measure in place to “protect” pupils and staff members amid Covid disruption. But Zahawi has been reported by newspapers as promising to take action.

So, what’s going on? Here’s everything you need to know:

What are the rules of face masks now?

The new guidance from the Department for Education takes schools back to how things were pre-Omicron.

Essentially – there are no restrictions. However, if a school has a case or outbreak, then they should take advice from local public health directors, who may ask for measures to be brought back.

Can the DfE force schools to drop masks?

No, they can’t.

While the government hopes schools follow its guidance, it’s just that – advice.

Just as pupils could not be forced to wear masks, the opposite is now true.

Schools Week understands that there is no legal mechanism available to the government to take action against schools which continue to implement a mask-wearing policy.

Department sources admitted while they have made their expectations clear, they won’t be enforced.

But what about Zahawi saying he’s going to contact schools?

Zahawi actually said “if required, local teams from DfE would work with individual schools to support them in implementing the guidance”.

This was reported by the Telegraph as Zahawi warning “officials will contact headteachers who are refusing to drop masks and explain why they must go”.

But a department source said they will not be “rooting out” schools.

Rather, if concerns are raised they may call to offer “friendly” support. The calls will not threaten any action to influence the school’s masks policy, the source said.

Why are some schools still keeping face masks in place?

Secondary schools opting to keep masks in place are mostly doing so in reaction to high case rates within their setting or local area or because they have large numbers of staff or pupils off.

Under normal circumstances, masks would be introduced following consultation with local health teams.

However with the ditching of face masks dropped on headteachers with just a few hours’ notice, they had to make their own call as they would not have had time to consult with health experts.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it is “not surprising if some schools have continued to use face masks for the time being while they resolve these issues”.

Most school leaders leave such decisions to public health experts, and it is widely expected they will do so again once they have time to seek their advice.

So will masks be re-introduced if there is a Covid outbreak?

Yes, in the event of an outbreak face coverings may be re-introduced along with other measures such as increased teaching and restricted attendance.

Guidance states that face coverings in classrooms “may temporarily, and exceptionally, be advised by” directors of public health for an individual school, as part of their responsibilities in managing an outbreak.

This is part of the government’s contingency framework.

Do ministers have a say on restrictions?

For outbreaks at individual schools, no.

The contingency framework states local authorities, directors of public health and the Uk Health Security Agency (UKHSA) can recommend measures for individual settings.

But for any area-wide restrictions, ministers do have the final say.

In a letter sent to MPs yesterday, Zahawi announced he had agreed with directors of public health that “in the event of extraordinary outbreaks of covid in localised areas, they will share their plans with me where they are recommending reintroducing face coverings in tightly-focused geographical zones so that we can assess evidence and data to ensure any extra measures are proportionate”.

Ministers will “take decisions on an area-by-area basis”.

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