English schools face tighter mask rules when pupils return

New plans to reopen schools include mandatory face masks outside classrooms and regular Covid testing

Kate Ng
Thursday 18 February 2021 01:44
Students at St Columba's High School, Gourock, wear protective face masks as they head to lessons
Students at St Columba's High School, Gourock, wear protective face masks as they head to lessons

As pressure mounts on the government to get pupils back into classrooms in England, rules on wearing face masks in school will be tightened and mass rapid testing could be rolled out after the planned reopening next month, it has been reported.

Under the new plans, it will become mandatory for pupils to wear masks outside classroom bubbles in secondary schools whenever it is not possible to practice social distancing, according The Guardian.

Until now, the decision as to whether or not students wear face masks in communal areas in schools and colleges has been left up to head teachers, with current guidance stating that the government does not recommend that face coverings are necessary in education settings.

The government is also reportedly hoping to manage outbreaks of Covid-19 by deploying repeat lateral flow tests for pupils to be conducted in school when they return, before switching to home tests.

TheTelegraph reports that parents will be asked to administer lateral flow tests on their children at home twice a week during term time, to minimise the chances of an outbreak spreading quickly throughout a school.

Secondary schools will reportedly be allowed to stagger the return of some year groups to allow for every pupil to be tested when they arrive at school.

Challenged on the report, the care minister Helen Whately told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there is “work in progress”, adding: “I'm not going to get drawn into that."

"There is work in progress looking at how testing can support schools to come back.

"There's already testing going on in schools, where you have children of key workers and teachers in schools at the moment, because schools aren't completely closed, and there is work going on at the moment about the details of the return to schools, and there will be more said about that next week."

The Department for Education (DfE) is also reportedly planning to launch a PR campaign to shore up parents’ confidence in school safety ahead of 8 March, which is when Boris Johnson told MPs the government hopes to start reopening English schools.

A report by The Guardian said that a series of announcements on schools will be made next week, starting with Mr Johnson’s blueprint to relaxing lockdown restrictions on Monday, followed by details on catch-up, assessments in the coming summer, and coronavirus testing.

The prime minister cautioned that the date for reopening schools in England is dependent on a number of factors, including the rate of vaccination amongst priority groups. A final decision on the issue is not expected until Friday at the earliest.

School leaders are due to hold talks with DfE on Thursday and are expected to call for a phased approach to reopening schools rather than a “big bang” return that would see 10 million students and staff heading back into the classroom on the same day.

Geogg Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College leaders, said it was “important that the full reopening of schools doesn’t end up triggering another spike in infection rates and another lockdown”, which he said would be a “disaster”.

“We need to remember that fully reopening schools brings into circulation nearly 10 million pupils and staff, which is not far short of a fifth of the population in England. It isn’t just the mixing in school that is the issue, but the potential for increased risk on the way to and from school and outside the school gates,” he told The Guardian.

A spokesperson for DfE said in a statement: “The prime minister is due to set out plans for schools reopening on 22 February, and it is hoped pupils will return from 8 March.

“Schools remain open to vulnerable children and children of critical workers, but if critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so.”

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