One of the country’s biggest academy trusts will encourage secondary pupils to wear masks in class in January amid fears of a “bigger wave” of Covid.
Oasis Community Learning is believed to be the first large multi-academy trust to introduce such precautions nationwide in response to the Omicron variant, but it said others may follow suit.
The trust’s move echoes similar decisions by several councils to take Covid precautions into their own hands, going beyond government guidance. Department for Education advice to schools states: “We do not advise that pupils and staff wear face coverings in classrooms.”
But some unions welcomed the move and urged the government to mandate similar measures nationally.
Oasis, England’s fourth largest trust with 52 schools, revealed the measures in a letter to staff on Thursday.
The letter from CEO John Murphy states: “We will proactively be encouraging secondary students to wear face coverings in the classroom as well as in communal areas (unless they are medically exempt).”
He said the “precautionary recommendation” would be implemented “for a temporary period from the beginning of the new term and will be reviewed after two weeks”.
He added that “whilst we cannot predict the future, medical experts and scientists are expecting a bigger wave to come either over Christmas or in the New Year.”
The letter said the move followed consultation with union representatives. Such “precautionary and proactive” measures will not only ensure health and safety, but reduce “potential for further disruption to our children’s education”.
The move will affect thousands of pupils in Oasis’ 18 secondaries, scattered across the country. The trust has five secondary schools in London, four in the south-east, three in the south-west, four in Yorkshire and the Humber and two in the north-west.
It is thought to be the first large trust to encourage in-class mask-wearing across the country over Omicron, rather than in particular local hotspots.
But a spokesperson said it was “aware of a number of other trusts considering this as well”.
Some may wait to see the DfE’s response, as the government does not advise masks in class and many backbench Conservative MPs are sceptical about such precautions.
The DfE said that “nobody can be denied education for not wearing a mask”, but would not comment directly on the decision taken by Oasis.
The spokesperson thanked schools for their efforts keeping schools open this term, and highlighted the DfE’s recommendation for pupils and staff to wear masks in communal areas.
She also encouraged students, staff and families to keep testing regularly and get vaccinated.
Several councils have also gone further than government recommendations to curb infections, repeating a trend seen earlier this year as Delta spread. Cheshire East and Sunderland are recommending mask-wearing in class in at least some of their schools.
An Oasis spokesperson said: “As we have throughout the pandemic, we continue to prioritise the safety of our students and staff. We achieve this through a range of control measures including ventilation, carbon monoxide monitoring, hand washing and the wearing of face coverings.”
While the trust will do “all we can” to deliver face-to-face education, he noted all children had an iPad to potentially learn online.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said schools, trusts and councils had to decide their approach to Omicron “on the basis of their context and risk assessments”.
“In some cases, this may go beyond the measures in government guidance, and this will be a decision which is carefully considered and arrived at in the best interests of school communities.”
Mike Short, head of education at Unison, said the DfE should follow Oasis’ lead. “The government should never have scrapped the mask wearing rule in secondary school classrooms. Now with Omicron surging, the reintroduction of face coverings is essential.”