Covid: Masks could return to classrooms in England to stem spread of coronavirus

Children wearing facemasks during a lesson at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster in Yorkshire.
Children wearing facemasks during a lesson at Outwood Academy in Woodlands, Doncaster in Yorkshire.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said it was right to have plans in place

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Mask-wearing for pupils could return to schools under contingency plans to keep coronavirus at bay in the classroom over winter.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said he did not want to see the return of bubbles, where whole classes or year groups could be sent home after a positive Covid test.

But he said that it was right to have plans in place to tackle the pandemic in schools.

Mr Zahawi also defended the slow rollout of carbon dioxide monitors which were first promised by the Department for Education (DfE) in August.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Zahawi said he was concerned about the impact Covid-19 measures had on attendance.

He said: “The good news is that – and thanks to the brilliant teachers and support staff and parents and children – 99% of schools are open.

“Attendance has gone up, the last set of figures I looked at was about 90%, which obviously will fluctuate depending on infection rates.

“But my priority is to protect education, keep those schools open.”

But he said he was not looking to return to the bubble system to do so, “because actually, you saw the fall off in attendance which really does harm mental wellbeing, mental health of children”.

Mr Zahawi did not, however, rule out the return of the wearing of masks in the classroom in England.

He said: “We’ve got a contingency plan, as you would expect me to do (…) it contains lots of contingencies, including masks, absolutely.”

The mandatory wearing of face coverings in schools and colleges was scrapped in May, but Government guidance says that directors of public health could advise schools to reintroduce them if cases spike.

And Mr Zahawi also said schools would be able to access technology to improve ventilation.

The DfE announced in August that 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors to help staff tackle poor ventilation and reduce the spread of Covid-19 would be rolled out across all state-funded education settings from September.

Asked on Sky News if there had been any progress, Mr Zahawi said: “They’re going out by the end of this month. We will have the real uplift in those numbers into schools, really important.

“We’re also looking at ventilation, and how we make sure that schools have access to ventilation.”

He said there was “lots of technology” surrounding ventilation and that central government was looking to invest in this but also “create a market that schools can access if they need”.

He said supply had been an issue in getting CO2 monitors to schools.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “So we’ve had several thousand delivered, by the end of this month we’ll be touching sort of 80-90,000, and then through November, we scale up to all 300,000 will be delivered.”

Asked why the delivery had taken so long, Mr Zahawi said: “I think it’s – obviously I’ve only been in department for two weeks – but I think it’s a combination of supply and making sure we’ve got supply, and then working with schools to see how many they need in each school. But we are ramping up through this month and next month.”

It comes after Government figures showed the number of children out of school for Covid-19 related reasons in England increased by two thirds in a fortnight.

The DfE estimates that 2.5% of all pupils – more than 204,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on Thursday last week.

This is up from 122,300 children, or 1.5% of all pupils, on September 16 – a 67% rise from two weeks ago.

In Wales, secondary school and college pupils will be advised to take daily lateral flow tests for seven days if someone in their household tests positive for coronavirus, the Welsh Government has announced.

In Scotland, an advisory group on education met on Tuesday to discuss the possible removal of face coverings in classrooms.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It is right that both the Government and local public health teams should move quickly and decisively where they see case numbers rising.

“We would expect local teams to be in constant dialogue with the DfE and it is essential that they work closely with schools and put in place appropriate measures when and where they are needed.

“Of course, no one wants any form of disruption to education but by reacting quickly there is a far greater chance of reducing further disruption in the longer-term.”

Latest Government figures show that as of 9am on Thursday, there had been a further 40,701 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK.

A further 122 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, bringing the UK total to 137,417.

Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have been 161,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.