Secondary schools are ignoring the government’s last-minute rule change to instead keep face masks in the classroom to “protect the health of children and staff” amid continued disruption.
Prime minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday the Department for Education (DfE) would lift its recommendation that face coverings be worn in secondary classrooms the following day.
It gave leaders just a few hours to inform parents of changes. Heads criticised the move as “shameful” and throwing them a “hospital pass”, pointing out it was a “cheap way” to deflect from the ongoing party-gate crisis engulfing government.
Under the changes, which reflect the end of plan B arrangements across England, rules requiring masks be worn in communal indoor areas will also be scrapped from next Thursday.
Schools sticking with masks
But many schools are persisting with masks. Andy Byers, headteacher of Framwellgate school in Durham, is encouraging students to continue to wear them for the next “two to three weeks”.
The school currently has around one in 10 staff and around one in 20 pupils off due to Covid.
“We felt that masks were brought in for a reason, and for us in that school that reason hasn’t disappeared yet,” he added.
Horndean Technology College in Hampshire will also continue with its mask-wearing policy.
Headteacher Julie Summerfield said: “I’m trying to protect the health of the young people and I’m trying to protect the health of my staff.”
The move would protect upcoming exams and keep pupils in school.
ONS data estimates around one in 10 primary age pupils and one in 20 secondary age pupils tested positive for Covid-19 last week.
The north east has 1,485 cases per 100,000 people – the highest of any region.
Four in five of the 1,150 schools represented by the Schools North East regional network will keep some Covid measures in place, the organisation revealed.
Director Chris Zarraga said “schools are still facing real challenges” with “local pictures often radically different from the national”.
South Tyneside council said schools may consider recommending face covering based on their own risk assessments.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, warned schools are “still very much in the eye of the Covid storm”.
Paul Haigh, headteacher of King Ecgbert School in Sheffield, told parents they are keeping masks “for the time being” due to having the “highest level of Covid infection we’ve ever seen”.
The 1,400-pupil school has 20 staff off. Haigh said he received a “flurry of emails from parents with thanks and supporting the decision”.
Over 300,000 pupils off school due to Covid
In the week ending January 16 there were 123 confirmed Covid outbreaks at primary schools in England, according to the UK Health Security Agency.
An outbreak is defined as two or more test-confirmed cases of Covid. There were 100 outbreaks at special schools and 17 at secondary.
Latest DfE attendance statistics show an estimated 315,000 pupils and around 60,000 staff missed school for Covid-related reasons on January 6.
David Phillips, head of Chilwell School in Nottinghamshire said the timing of the decision showed a “complete lack of respect for school leaders”.
Byers added he was made aware of the change an hour before pupils went home.
Jonathan Mountstevens, a deputy head, said using masks “as a cheap way to distract from a crisis is shameful.
“Clear communication and consistency are key to routines and high standards in schools, so last minute changes like this ride roughshod over them, throwing heads a hospital pass. Again.”
The recommendation for masks had been reintroduced in January, while masks in communal areas has been advised since November.
Meanwhile education secretary Nadhim Zahawi praised teachers and school staff for “following the science” and getting vaccinated.
Just over four in five education professionals aged between 40 and 64 had received three vaccinations, second only to health professionals.