Covid: Secondary school pupils told to wear face masks to stop Omicron variant spread

Pupils at St Columba's High School in Gourock, Inverclyde, wear protective face masks during their history lesson.
Pupils at St Columba's High School in Gourock, Inverclyde, wear protective face masks during their history lesson.

Mandatory mask-wearing returns to shops and public transport on Tuesday

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Face coverings are to be brought back for communal areas in England’s schools and colleges as part of measures to contain the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, it has been announced.

Under the new guidance, all staff, visitors and pupils in Year 7 – the first year of secondary school – or above, are “strongly advised” to wear a covering, unless exempt.

The measure, which applies from Monday, covers all education establishments including universities, as well as childcare settings such as early years care.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “The news of a new variant – the so-called Omicron variant – will have understandably caused concern for people across our country, including our teachers, wider education and childcare staff, parents, pupils and students.

“We are already taking targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we find out more information about the new variant.

“As we do so, we will continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and children continue to benefit from classroom teaching.

“We are working with education and childcare settings to enhance safety measures where needed, including introducing isolation for 10 days for close contacts of suspected Omicron cases.

“I’d like to thank everyone working to support our children and young people for their patience and hard work.”

The guidance is temporary and will be reviewed in three weeks, the Department for Education said.

Students in Year 7 or above should also continue to wear face coverings on public and dedicated school transport, unless they are exempt, the DfE said, and staff and students should continue to be encouraged to test themselves twice a week using lateral flow tests.

The department also said schools, out of school settings and colleges will “want to consider” whether to go ahead with any planned international trips at the current time, given the potential risk to education from the need to isolate and test when returning to the UK.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it supports the measures “as a sensible response to the risks posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19”.

But he added: “This worrying situation, however, emphasises the need for better support from the Government for the education sector.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We welcome the DfE guidance that masks must be worn by adults and children in Year 7 and above in communal areas. We think the DfE should go further and encourage mask-wearing in secondary classrooms and also plan investment to improve ventilation and air filtration.

“These steps can all help reduce the spread of Covid and thereby reduce disruption to education. Omicron makes the threat of disruption of education all the clearer: any close contacts of an Omicron case, staff or pupils, will have to self-isolate for 10 days, whether vaccinated or not.”