What is changing?
After a cabinet minister claimed on Tuesday morning that the policy was not under review, the government revised its guidance on face coverings for staff and children in secondary schools in England. In areas of the country with high levels of Covid-19, defined as “areas of national government intervention”, such as lockdown areas including Greater Manchester, children in year 7 and above and adults are being advised to wear face coverings in schools “when moving around, such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing is difficult”. The guidance states “it will not usually be necessary” to wear masks in classrooms, where protective measures mean the risks are lower.
What will happen if pupils do not follow the new guidance?
The new policy falls under the category of guidance rather than “mandatory activity”, the government says. It adds that “any legal exemptions that apply to the wearing of face coverings in shops and on public transport also apply to this new advice”.
Asked what would happen to anyone who does not follow the guidance on masks, a Department for Education spokesman said: “The wellbeing of all children, young people and staff should be the central focus when preparing for the reopening of schools at a local level. No one should be excluded from education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering. As would be usual, if there are any concerns about a child or young person behaving or acting in a way which doesn’t align with school policy or procedure, their behaviour or actions should be discussed with them to resolve those concerns.”
What about schools not in lockdown areas?
The government is not saying face coverings are necessary in secondary schools outside of local lockdown areas, but says it is giving heads discretion over whether to apply the guidance. “Schools and colleges will have the discretion to require face coverings in communal areas where social distancing cannot be safely managed, if they believe that it is right in their particular circumstances,” the guidance states.
It gives examples of why school leaders might decide to recommend face coverings for pupils and staff, such as because the layout of the school makes social distancing difficult.
Why is the government acting now?
On Monday the deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, said the evidence on whether or not children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”. However, the new guidance references the World Health Organization’s updated position – also endorsed by Unicef, the UN children’s agency – on 21 August which said: “Children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a 1-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.” The government had also come under pressure from unions including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), which represents more than 19,000 senior staff, over the issue.
What are devolved administrations doing?
Downing Street’s policy shift was announced hours after Scotland’s education secretary said on Tuesday that all Scottish secondary school pupils over the age of 12 should wear face coverings in communal areas including corridors from Monday. On dedicated school transport, all children aged five and over should cover their faces, the Scottish government also said. Northern Ireland has said it is making a similar move. The Welsh government has said it is reviewing whether children should wear face masks in schools.
Is everyone now happy with the guidance?
Not quite. The government’s latest policy about-turn has prompted criticism from its own backbenches, with the senior Tory MP Huw Merriman urging Downing Street to “get a grip”. In a stinging attack, he told the BBC on Wednesday: “The worry is that if we’re saying it’s unsafe in the corridors, the next thing it’ll be unsafe in the classroom, and that will really prove an impediment on people’s learning. And, quite frankly, as a Conservative MP that came into politics to try to help people’s life chances through school, I am sick and tired of the way that we are treating our young people. I feel it’s an absolute disgrace and I really feel the government needs to get a grip and just be certain, get on with it and inspire confidence rather than just completely changing its mind.”