Face masks: Headteachers left 'picking up the pieces' after government leaves them to make decisions

‘I think it is a very uncomfortable position,’ chief executive of a trust says

Zoe Tidman
Wednesday 02 September 2020 02:57
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Boris Johnson urges pupils to return to school amid face covering row

School leaders have expressed concern over the government’s approach to face masks in schools, with headteachers deciding what approach to take as students start coming back to school.

Richard Sheriff, the chief executive of a trust of Yorkshire schools, accused the government of passing the buck by leaving the decision up to individual schools.

“I think it is a very uncomfortable position,” he told The Independent.

“It feels like the buck has been passed to headteachers. We will now individually take the stick from parents, children, communities, about whatever stance we choose to be appropriate in these circumstances.”

Pepe Di’Iasio, a headteacher in Rotherham, told The Independent he had received several letters from concerned parents after opting against face masks in school because of “relatively low infection rates” in the local area.

In a U-turn last week, Boris Johnson dropped advice against the use of face masks in English schools, saying that secondary school staff and students in local lockdown areas should wear them when moving around school sites and in shared spaces where social distancing is not possible.

Meanwhile, school leaders elsewhere will have discretion to make face coverings compulsory if they believe it is “right in their particular circumstances”.

The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, accused Mr Johnson of trying to “pass the buck” to headteachers with last week’s face mask changes.

“What they have done is left headteachers like myself with a barrage of emails saying, ‘Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are you making this decision?’” Mr Di’Iasio, who also claimed the changes came too late, said.

The Wales High School headteacher added: “We have been left to pick up the pieces of the difficulties that parents face right now in an already uncertain time.”

Mr Sheriff, from Red Kite Learning Trust, said: “Headteachers should not have to take responsibility for clinical decision-making in a public health setting.”

He added: “We’ve been left by the government to make decisions which feel to me way beyond my geography teacher competence.”

Mr Sheriff said he is not asking students to wear face masks at all across 12 out of 13 of his sites – with the one affected having particularly narrow corridors.

Andy Byers, a Durham headteacher, said he has decided to ask children to wear face masks in the classroom – something the UK prime minister has called “nonsensical”.

While he said he is happy that headteachers can decide for themselves what their schools should do, he is less happy about Mr Johnson’s comments, which came shortly after the government scrapped its advice against wearing face masks in schools.

“Having given heads discretion, he then rubbished some of the things that we have decided to do,” the Framwellgate School Durham headteacher told The Independent.

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, commented last Friday on the issue of face masks for school pupils, saying: “The evidence on face coverings is not very strong in either direction.”

She added: “At the moment the evidence is pretty stable, but it can be very reassuring in those enclosed environments for children, and for teachers as well, to know that people are taking precautions.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have consistently been guided by the latest scientific and medical advice, and we recently updated our guidance on face coverings following the statement from the World Health Organisation.

“In local lockdown areas children in year 7 and above should wear face coverings in communal spaces and corridors. Outside of local lockdown areas, face coverings won’t be required in schools, though schools will have the flexibility to introduce this if they believe it is right in their specific circumstances. Face coverings will not be required in the classroom as they hinder communication and pupils’ education.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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