Face coverings are no longer advised for pupils, staff and visitors at schools, following changes to the Department for Education’s Schools Covid-19 operational guidance issued on 19 January 2022. This is in direct conflict with NEU policy that “the wearing of face coverings should be extended to classrooms in secondary settings, for both staff and students, to seek to limit the spread of Omicron and protect continuity of education.” Meanwhile, there have been inconsistent reports as to whether Nadhim Zahawi would or would not intervene in individual schools’ decisions to keep face mask requirements.
Such inconsistencies contribute to confusion for schools in handling local outbreaks of COVID-19. We outline our analysis of the guidance below.
The Department for Education’s operational guidance for schools and COVID-19 instructs schools that face coverings are no longer advised from 20 January in classrooms, and from 27 January in communal areas. The guidance also advises schools to have contingency plans in place and to this end, the Department has also published a ‘Contingency framework: education and childcare settings’ which “describes the principles of managing local outbreaks of coronavirus … in education and childcare settings”.
The Contingency Framework clearly sets out that it is the responsibility of Local Authorities, Directors of Public Health and Health Protection Teams to manage localised outbreaks.
It advises settings to seek public health advice from such teams if case numbers reach the following thresholds (whichever is reached first):
- 5 children, pupils, students or staff; or
- 10% of children, pupils, students or staff
who are likely to have mixed closely, test positive for COVID-19 within a 10-day period (with smaller numbers referred to for smaller settings).
The following section of the Contingency Framework goes on to outline “Measures that settings should plan for”, which includes reference to face coverings both in communal areas and in classrooms and teaching spaces in individual secondary schools. Such measures can be advised by the directors of public health “temporarily, and exceptionally”.
Whilst the responsibility for health and safety lies with the trustees of an academy trust, where any school has concerns about the immediate removal of face coverings in classrooms and/or communal areas, we would advise them to contact their local public health teams before implementing any contingency framework which includes requiring students to wear face coverings. Additionally, schools should ensure their risk assessments are continually reviewed and updated.
Mandatory face coverings has proved to be an emotive topic for some, and unilateral decisions by schools re-introducing (or not lifting) the mandatory wearing of face coverings by pupils may result in parental complaints. If schools have been advised to reintroduce (or not to lift) mandatory wearing of face coverings by directors of public health, complaints (which may even result in negative publicity for the school) are likely to be easier to handle.