Face masks in schools ‘far from ideal’ but could avoid exam disruption

·4-min read
Face masks could avoid exam disruption (PA Media)
Face masks could avoid exam disruption (PA Media)

Face masks in schools will help prevent disruption to children’s learning, London education bosses have said.

Academy trust chief executives have welcomed the reintroduction of face coverings in secondary schools in England, which is set to continue until at least January 26.

It comes as six school staff unions have issued a demand for urgent action to limit the spread of the virus and warned that exams would be put at risk without further measures.

Many fear that high staff absences could worsen as the new term continues, causing significant disruption to children’s education.

School leaders have said that while face masks in classrooms are “far from ideal”, they want to prevent teacher and pupil absences and school closures, which could jeopardise this year’s national exams, including GCSEs and A Levels.

Sir Daniel Moynihan, who runs the Harris Federation which educates 36,000 children in and around London, said face coverings in schools are “clearly not ideal but it’s the lesser of two evils”.

He told the Standard: “It is a crisis in education, a lot of damage has been done. We are in a pandemic and anything we can do that will help keep children in school has got to be right.

Secondary school students are now required to wear face coverings in class, unless exempt (PA Wire)
Secondary school students are now required to wear face coverings in class, unless exempt (PA Wire)

“If you think about the Year 13 that are due to do their exams this summer, if those exams are cancelled for any reason, then that year group will have done no public exams of any kind in secondary school,” he said.

“There is a risk that exams will be cancelled, we are all praying they won’t be, but schools have been advised to undertake mock exams to generate predicated grades with evidence.

“Secondary schools across the country are planning to do those in January, and if masks allow us to keep more children in school so we can get that evidence, in case exams are cancelled, then that’s really important.”

He stressed that summer exams being cancelled is “unlikely” but said that if a lockdown or large number of schools closing for an extended period of time were to happen then that would make “doing exams very difficult”.

Sir Daniel added: “At the moment, the Government has rightly said it wants to keep schools open and masks are one of the measures it’s taking to help achieve that, so as long as schools can be kept open and the majority of children attend most of the time those exams will go ahead.”

All secondary school pupils must wear a face covering while in class as well as in communal areas unless exempt in a bid to help tackle the spread of Omicron.

Teachers will not have to wear them under the new guidelines.

Students do lateral flow tests as new term starts (Jeremy Selwyn)
Students do lateral flow tests as new term starts (Jeremy Selwyn)

Students will also be expected to take a Covid test on-site and complete a test twice a week from home under the updated government advice.

Sir Hamid Patel, chief executive of Star Academies which runs a network of primary and secondary schools in east London and across the UK, also welcomed the reintroduction of face coverings.

“Face coverings may not be ideal, but the alternative - closing schools - is more detrimental to young people’s wellbeing and education,” Sir Hamid said.

He said that “everything must be done to ensure summer exams go ahead” and that measures including face masks, regular testing, vaccination and adequate ventilation all play “a vital part in protecting our most vulnerable and ensuring that we keep schools open”.

“We are confident that exams will go ahead. Even if they do not, our priority is to deliver high quality learning so that our students are ready for the next stage in their learning,” he continued.

It comes as the four main teaching unions covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland - ASCL, NAHT, NEU and NASUWT - plus the GMB and Unison, issued a joint statement calling for urgent steps to help schools.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (PA Wire)
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi (PA Wire)

It said schools needed to avoid exam disruption for a third successive year, and remove uncertainty and additional workloads for students and teachers.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi defended the move, saying that secondary pupils in England will wear masks in classrooms “not for a day longer than necessary”.

The Department for Education has said that they are planning for exams to go ahead this year including the VTQs in January, and have put measures and support in place for students who have had disruption to their learning.

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