Masks will return to classrooms in England to help reduce the spread of the Omicron variant, reports Romilly Weeks of ITV News
High school students in England will once again have to wear masks in classrooms as the UK faces an increase in Covid-19 cases caused by the highly transmissible variant Omicron.
The government has said the recommendation for high schools and colleges will be temporary and will be in effect until January 26, when ‘Plan B’ Covid measures are due to be reviewed.
He added that the reintroduction of face masks in classrooms “will maximize the number of children in school” for “the maximum time”.
School leaders welcomed the decision, saying schools and colleges would do it “in their wake”.
Face masks are already recommended in common areas for older students and staff.
“Where the government is going to have more problems with this is with its own backbenchers,” said Romilly Weeks, political correspondent for ITV News, explains where the rejection of face masks could come from in schools
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting has said he would rather face masks worn in classrooms than children missing school because of Covid because it is important that students continue to learn.
He also spoke to Sky News about the relevance of the tests: “I think there are however two things the government can and should do. The first concerns testing. Students should be tested twice a week. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this did not happen correctly.
“So the message for the government is to put the tests in place, to make sure that the students can test twice a week.
“And my message to parents and students is ‘take the tests’ because the big challenge this month is going to be to keep the students in learning, to avoid massive absences and, of course, to make sure that the staff are good enough to go to school as well. “
However, there were concerns about the provision of lateral flow tests, which prompted calls from a union of principals to ensure the tests are available to schools.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT principals union, said: “The difficulties the public have faced in accessing the lateral flow tests over the past few weeks has made many people nervous not to be available in case of need for school staff and students.
“If lateral flow testing is to be essential in getting students and staff back to school quickly, there has to be a ready-made offering for schools when they return in January and throughout the year. trimester. “
But according to Geoff Barton, secretary general of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), there are currently no concerns about providing lateral flow tests to schools.
The government faces criticism from within its own party over the issue of face masks in schools, as Robert Halfon, chairman of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, told Times Radio he is ‘worried about the possible negative impact of making masks compulsory for children in secondary schools.
The Conservative MP said: “I am worried about the mask policy. The Minister for Children came before my committee and said that there was very little evidence as to the effectiveness of masks in educational institutions.
“Jonathan Van-Tam, the extremely respected Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said they might be quite inhibitory to natural expressions of learning in children, the National Children’s Deaf Society tweeted its big reservations about the politics of children. masks and what worries me. that’s the effect the masks have on children’s well-being, mental health and anxiety, and we already know that the lockdown has been a huge spike in children’s mental health issues. “
Mr Barton said: “While there are obvious drawbacks to using face covers in classrooms, it is clear that the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education with the potential to further disrupt schools, colleges and youth.
“It is absolutely essential that everything is done to reduce transmission and ensure children stay in school, and therefore we are supporting the reintroduction of face covering in classrooms for grade 7 and up students.
“Face coverings are already recommended in the common areas for 7th grade and over pupils.
“Students are used to their use and we’re sure that reintroducing face coverings into classrooms is something schools and colleges will embrace in stride. “
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7,000 additional air purifiers for classrooms
The government will also provide 7,000 additional air purifiers to schools, colleges and childcare facilities to improve ventilation in classrooms.
The Education Ministry said these would be used in areas where “quick fixes to improve ventilation are not possible” – for example, where windows cannot be opened.
But Mr Streeting told Sky News the number of purifiers was “far away” far enough.
He said: “I’m not clear from what the government has said whether this is a per school system or a per school air purifier – because obviously (there is ) a big difference between the two.
“And again, I’m afraid it sounds a bit like a rushed last minute announcement to make it seem like they’re doing something about a big issue where they should have acted much sooner.”
Mr Barton said his union has been calling for additional air purification units “for some time” and that they should have come “sooner”.
But he said the move was “better late than never”.
He said: “We are awaiting further details on the eligibility criteria for these devices and we urge the government to make this program as accessible as possible.”
But Dr Mary Bousted, deputy general secretary of the NEU teachers’ union, said the 7,000 air purifiers are “completely inadequate for what should be a basic human right”.
She said: “The fact that the government has provided additional purifiers shows that it recognizes the problem, but with over 300,000 classrooms in England, they have failed to provide an effective solution.”
Staff absences due to Covid
But Mr Barton, head of the principals’ union, warned that the spring term would be “extremely difficult”, with the biggest problem schools face being staff absences due to Covid.
He said: “While schools and colleges do their best to minimize the impact on students, as they always do, it is possible that this means that certain classes and age groups need to be sent home. for short periods of time to learn at a distance.
Six unions representing education staff have urged the government to better cover the costs of substitute staff to cover Covid-related absences.
Ofsted has already told high schools that there will be no inspections in the first week of the term as schools carry out on-site testing.
But after the first week, schools, colleges and childcare facilities that are “significantly affected by Covid-related staff absences” will have to request a postponement of their inspection, the government said on Sunday.
And inspectors who are also school, college or early childhood officials will not be invited to perform their Ofsted duties at this time.
Dr Bousted called for the suspension of all Ofsted inspections, except those related to safeguarding fears.
She said: “It is difficult to see how Ofsted will function without the services of principals.
“Rather than limp, Ofsted should suspend all inspections other than safeguard concerns.
“Given the currently very high infection rates, every school will be significantly affected by Covid.
“The emphasis should be on the essential objective of ensuring continuity of education for as many students as possible, and not on jumping through the Ofsted hoops.”
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “Being in the classroom is without a doubt the best place for children and I look forward to welcoming the students next week to continue their face-to-face learning. which is so important for their education and well-being. .
“There is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents its challenges, but the entire education sector has responded with a Herculean effort, and for that I thank all of you.
“The Prime Minister and I made it clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will strengthen our support for schools as we do everything in our power to minimize disruption. “
162,572 other cases of Covid have been recorded in England from 9 a.m. on Saturday, a new record of cases reported daily in the country.
The government said 154 more people have died in England within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
Although daily case and death numbers were not available for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Saturday, Friday closed the fourth consecutive day of record daily increases with 189,846.