Keep face masks in the classroom for another month, urge unions and scientists

The government has changed its policy on face coverings for pupils going to school.

Lifting the recommendation that face coverings be worn in secondary classrooms this month will have “consequences” for the health of children and parents, a group of unions and scientists has warned.

Teaching unions the NEU and NASUWT and support staff unions Unite, Unison and the GMB have sent an open letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, co-signed by around 20 scientists and public health professionals, five of whom are members if the “Independent SAGE” group.

In the letter, they warn that face coverings are “an essential part of the wider system of control in schools”, and said they should continue to be required in secondary classrooms until at least June 21.

Masks have been recommended in secondary classrooms since schools reopened more widely on March 8. The government initially said it would review the rule in the Easter holidays, but opted to continue to make the recommendation until May 17 at the earliest.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, told MPs last week he hoped the government would be able to relax the recommendation from May 17, but said this decision would be based on scientific advice as part of the government’s wider roadmap out of lockdown.

In the letter, unions and scientists pointed out that they were “not aware of any plans to lift face covering requirements in relation to shops or transport, where people generally spend less time in close contact with large groups” than in schools.

They also warned that while a “significant proportion” of the population has at least received a single dose of vaccine, “this is not sufficient to fully mitigate the impact of transmission among children on infection rates in the community”.

“To strip these necessary protections, when there are already too few mitigation measures in schools, and when rates of Covid-19 are still significant would have consequences for the health of our children and their parents as well as their communities.”

Fears about new variants

They also pointed to reports of outbreaks of Covid-19 variants linked to schools in Telford and Leicester, as well as a rise in Covid infection rates among children seen after schools reopened in March.

The latest Office for National Statistics Covid infection survey shows that rates among school-aged children fell between the end of March and April 24.

But the union letter warned that the decline in prevalence coincided with the Easter holiday period, and followed an initial rise.

masks face coverings schools

“It is extremely worrying that we saw such marked case rises over March among children, given that schools were only open for a few weeks, and with mitigations such as mask wearing in place for secondary school children (although only recommended when distancing could not be maintained).”

The letter also warns about the impact of so-called “long Covid” on children.

ONS data published earlier this year showed that around 13 per cent of primary school age children and around 15 per cent of those aged 12 to 16 reported at least one Covid symptom five weeks after infection.

The letter goes on to urge the government to “consider the global and national evidence on current infection rates in schools when making decisions about face coverings in school”.

“These should be continued in schools after May 17, with review prior to the next stage of the roadmap on June 21.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is expected that face coverings will no longer be required in classrooms at step 3 of the roadmap, which will be no earlier than May 17.

“The lifting of further restrictions at step 3 will follow a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates, and all other school safety measures, including regular asymptomatic testing, will remain in place.”



Signatories include…

Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning, Queen Mary University of London, UK

Prof. Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK; Independent SAGE, UK

Prof. Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology, University College London, UK; Independent SAGE, UK

Prof. Christina Pagel, Professor of Operational Research, University College London, UK; Independent SAGE, UK

Prof. Stephen Reicher, Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Social Psychology, University of St. Andrews, UK; Independent SAGE, UK

Dr. Hisham Ziauddeen, Consultant Psychiatrist, Cambridge & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, UK

Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford

Dr Zubaida Haque, Member of Independent SAGE and former interim director of Runnymede Trust

Dr Kit Yates, Co-director of the Centre for Mathematical Biology, University of Bath, UK

Dr Zoë Hyde, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia

Dr Sarah Rasmussen, Department of Pure Mathematics & Mathematical Statistics, University of Cambridge, UK

Dr Bharat Pankhania, University of Exeter, UK

Prof. Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Birmingham

Dr. Alison George, GP, Newcastle, UK

Dr. Peter English, Public Health Physician, UK

Dr. Sakkaf Ahmed Aftab, Chair BMA Yorkshire Consultant Committee, UK

Dr Christine Peters, Consultant Microbiologist NHS Glasgow, UK

Dr Eilir Hughes. General Practitioner and co-founder of FreshAir.Wales

Dr Huw Waters. Materials Scientist and co-founder of FreshAir.Wales

Prof. Elizabeth Stokoe, Professor of Social Interaction, Loughborough University, UK; Independent SAGE, UK

Prof. Robert West, University College London, UK

Prof. John Drury, University of Sussex, UK

Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam, New England Complex Systems Institute, CovidActionGroup,

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  1. Dr D.

    Difference in shops/transport is you sit/stand next to a random selection of people.

    In a classroom you have the same people next to you day in day out with a rigid seating plan.

    There’s an argument for keeping them in corridors etc. – but the disruption/discomfort in the classroom is no longer needed.

    Plus the evidence that fabric masks as worn by pupils (i.e. badly) makes any difference is non existent.

    • Sarah Louise Hopkins Saul

      Covid is Airborne. Seating 30+ interchanging members of different households in an 8mx8m classroom without masks is negligent.

      • Stev

        If kidds are being tested and are only going into school I’d they are negative exactly what is it that the masks are ‘protecting’ people from?

        Or are masks an admittance that they can’t trust the results of the tests.

        Answers on a postcard

    • Steve

      I haven’t quite got my head around the need for masks at all. There’s no clear evidence they work and certainly no evidence or data to keep them

      What I really don’t understand is that masks were not required when schools resumed last September. The ‘Kent’ variant didn’t appear until October but it wasn’t until January that cases started rising. Which means that kids at school, who were not wearing masks, didn’t really contribute to the increase (had been 3 weeks since they finished for Xmas before cases started to rise)

      So if not wearing masks then, when we didn’t have a vaccine, didn’t increase cases, why is it that the kids need to wear one now, when numbers are so low and the ones who actually are at risk from covid have been vaccinated?

      Just sounds like union’s trying to sound relevant.

  2. Sarah Louise Hopkins Saul

    All scientifically recognised mitigations as required in all other indoor settings where households mix should be allowed to be used if in-person education is prioritised and no-one is to be unnecessarily and knowingly exposed to increased risk of infection.
    My asthmatic child has no problem wearing at all times in school.

    • Sharon Mcilmail

      I am a primary teacher. My room has 27 children 7/8 year olds and 5 adults. If we manage 1 m distance we are doing well. I am disgusted that the rest of the world thinks that this is acceptable. I continue teaching for my kids and just pray we stay safe

  3. James

    Why are we making our children scapegoats. This is cruel and totally unacceptable. Please can we have the scientific evidence that this is based on? 3,000 strangers went to a nightclub without masks, where’s the difference?

  4. daniela

    Shame on you! Disgusting that you are so happy to destroy children’s normality because of your fear. What do these “long covid” children have? a bit of a cough? like after ANY respiratory infection? most of them are TOTALLY ASYMPTOMATIC.

  5. Natalie

    Masks impede communication in schools, they are not worn hygienically by teenagers, many find them detrimental to their levels of concentration and their is little evidence to say that fabric masks that children touch all day will stop the spread. Now that the vulnerable have all had at least one vaccine and the numbers are heading firmly in the right direction, surely it’s time to start putting children first again.