Secondary school students will not be forced to wear face coverings in classrooms, as some will be “anxious and nervous” about wearing them, an education minister has said.
As millions of pupils in England begin to return to class after months of remote learning, children’s minister Vicky Ford said secondary school pupils should be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks.
But the Government has decided against making their use mandatory due to pupil anxiety, Ms Ford said.
The Department for Education (DfE) is advising secondary school and college students to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in the classroom.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is providing members with a template letter that they can use in response to letters some schools have received objecting to the use of face coverings.
The letter says a school’s risk assessment could be undermined, health and safety problems created and there could be insurance ramifications if a high percentage of students choose not to wear face masks.
Asked whether schools where there is not much mask-wearing should close, Ms Ford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “No, I think that we should strongly encourage them to wear the masks, I think the vast majority of young people, they get this.
“But there will be some who will be very anxious and nervous about doing so and that’s why we understand that and that is why we have not made it mandatory but we have strongly encouraged this.”
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), called Ms Ford’s comments on face coverings ahead of the full reopening of schools “poor form”.
Speaking to Sky News, Dr Bousted said: “Masks are required by everyone in shops, in public buildings, in all sorts of places, so if they are required in schools to suppress the transmission of the virus then that is something which all children and young people in secondary school should do – unless there is a medical reason why they wouldn’t.”
She added: “I think the Government ministers have to really think carefully. They have said to schools ‘we expect mask wearing throughout secondary schools in the classroom and in the corridor’.
“If that’s what they expect, they should not be equivocating about it before it’s introduced. They should be supporting schools in ensuring that masks are worn.”
Gateacre School, a secondary school in Liverpool, has said it is considering sanctions for children who do not wear a face mask.
Headteacher Gareth Jones said there would be discussions with pupils and parents on how to enforce the rule.
All children are able to return to class from Monday under the first step to ease restrictions, but secondary schools can stagger the return of students over the week to allow for mass testing.
Secondary school pupils are being asked to take three voluntary Covid-19 tests on site and one at home over the first fortnight. They will then be sent home-testing kits to use twice-weekly.
Ms Ford sparked confusion on Monday after she said that a child who tests positive for Covid with a lateral flow test, but then subsequently receives a negative PCR result, should not return to class.
Speaking to the Today programme, she said: “They should not take the risk, we all want to make sure we can keep Covid out of the classrooms here.”
But Downing Street confirmed that pupils who appear positive for Covid-19 in rapid tests taken at home, rather than at school, will receive a PCR test that could allow them to return to class.
Secondary and college students who get positive lateral flow tests taken outside of school will carry out a subsequent PCR test – and if they test negative, they can return to school rather than self-isolate.
However, students who test positive in a lateral flow test at school or college over the next few weeks will have to self-isolate for 10 days and they will not need a PCR test.
Primary school children are not being asked to carry out Covid-19 tests or wear face coverings.
Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, has previously warned that ministers risk creating “mask anarchy” unless regulations on face coverings in schools were made clearer.
Last week Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, told MPs that it would be “much easier” if Government guidance on face coverings was “black and white” as he said headteachers could “do without” disputes about face masks.
Pupils in England, except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, have been learning remotely since the start of the lockdown in January.
An Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) survey suggests that nine in 10 parents would send their child back to school this week even if it was optional.