The Lancashire districts of the National Education Union (NEU) made the request in the wake of the government announcement earlier this week that the precaution would no longer be recommended from 17th May as part of the next step on the roadmap out of lockdown in England.
When schools reopened back in March – after being shut for two months during the height of the third Covid wave – secondary school pupils were told that they should cover their faces both in class and also communal areas.
In a letter to Lancashire County Council’s directors of education and public health, the NEU has described the government’s decision to change its guidance as “perplexing and extremely worrying” – stating that it is at odds with the scientific advice provided to ministers about masks in education settings.
Written by the Lancashire-based chair of the NEU’s national health and safety group, Ian Watkinson, the letter states:
“Given the overwhelming evidence and recommendations for their continued use as a means of controlling and mitigating against school and community virus spread, we feel that Lancashire County Council public health guidance, reassurance and encouragement for headteachers to continue with a policy of universal classroom and communal face covering use… is vitally important.
“Clearly, different parts of the country are not faced with the same heightened levels of risk as we are facing right now in Lancashire, and we would urge [the county council] to adopt and recommend a cautious approach – and for schools and colleges not to relax any Covid-19 safety control measures at this time.
“Schools will be looking to make informed decisions – with governors – and arrange communications with parents on face covering policies and any changes to Covid-19 risk assessments swiftly,” the letter concludes, asking for speedy communication with schools.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr. Watkinson said that concern about variant spread was one of the main reasons the NEU wanted to see masks in school retained for now.
“There is zero science or health rationale to relaxing safety measures in schools at this time. We are seeing increasing numbers of outbreaks, because the virus – in particular, the Indian variant – is at large in communities.
“As ever, full classrooms, with poor ventilation, are vectors for transmission and continue to drive the spread of the virus back into communities,” said Mr. Watkinson, who is also the Lancashire representative on the NEU’s national executive committee.
Lancashire’s Covid case rate per 100,000 people stood at 26.2 in the seven days to 5th May, slightly above the England average of 21.4. Four areas are above 30 – Hyndburn (79.0), Blackburn (73.5), Preston (41.9) and Chorley (31.3)
The new government guidance on masks issued this week makes it clear that local decision-makers can use their own discretion on the requirement for face coverings in schools if local circumstances demand it.
“The reintroduction of face coverings for pupils, students or staff may be advised for a temporary period in response to particular localised outbreaks, including variants of concern. In all cases, any educational drawbacks should be balanced with the benefits of managing transmission.
“Immediate outbreak response – at the level of individual settings or a cluster of settings – remains for local Directors of Public Health to advise on,” the guidance states.
It adds that teachers will no longer be expected to wear face coverings in classrooms, but, along with visitors, should continue to do so in communal areas or when moving around the school in situations where social distancing is not possible.
Lancashire County Council was approached for comment on the NEU’s letter.