SNP facing demands to scrap face masks in schools

·4-min read
Pupils at Rosshall Academy wear face coverings, Scotland - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe
Pupils at Rosshall Academy wear face coverings, Scotland - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe

The SNP is facing demands to scrap face masks in schools, after government advisors suggested they were no longer needed.

The Scottish Tories said that the widespread rollout of vaccinations to adults, as well as data suggesting virus rates were on the decline, meant that evidence now supported a “return to normality” in classrooms when the new school year began next month.

Minutes of a government advisory group meeting on education last month show that there was “general agreement” among participants that face coverings should be removed in classrooms “where possible” – although the panel said they should remain in communal areas.

However, on Wednesday, Holyrood’s main opposition party backed abandoning face masks in schools completely, arguing that children should be at the “front of the queue” for easing restrictions after 18 months of severe disruption to their education.

There is also pressure on Ms Sturgeon to scrap the need for pupils to self-isolate if a classmate catches Covid and is identified as a close contact, which has caused turmoil for schools, pupils and working parents.

However, the wholesale ditching of face masks would likely be opposed by the country’s most powerful teaching union, the EIS, which has said rules in schools should be no more lenient than those in other settings.

A requirement to wear face coverings in some places is expected to remain in place even after a widespread lifting of almost all other legal restrictions planned for Aug 9.

However, Oliver Mundell, the education spokesman for the Scottish Tories, said children deserved a return to normality “as soon as possible”.

“The success of Scotland and the UK’s vaccine scheme means that face masks in schools are no longer a necessity, as the government’s advisers have suggested,” he said.

“We firmly believe the public health data now supports a return to normality in schools by removing the requirement for face masks and ending the need for children to self-isolate for 10 days.

“We should put restoring Scotland’s schools first and give children back a normal learning experience again.”

The SNP Government has said it will publish new rules around self-isolation and face masks for children ahead of the new school year, which begins in mid-August.

However, there is concern among some of Ms Sturgeon’s advisors that the return of schools will bring a surge of cases, as under current guidelines, most children in the UK are not being vaccinated.

The First Minister has strongly suggested that she is in favour of offering vaccines to all 12 to 17-year-olds, rather than only those with underlying health conditions or living with someone with a compromised immune system, as is the case currently.

Devi Sridhar, a public health expert who advises Ms Sturgeon on the virus, has warned that the UK’s current stance on vaccinating children is “reckless” and risks allowing new virus variants to develop.

The Scottish Government has asked the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) to review its approach ahead of the new term starting.

The latest figures have shown that virus rates are on the decline, with 9,047 cases reported last week in Scotland, a fall of 35 per cent on the previous week.

Us for Them Scotland, the parents’ group, said face masks in schools were “inappropriate” and had a particularly damaging impact on vulnerable children.

“Parents will be relieved to see one political party taking this up and will hope others follow,” Jo Bisset, the group’s spokeswoman, said.

“Children simply cannot afford to have a third successive academic year marred by the pandemic. They must return to school on time, without the requirement to wear face masks and without fear of being sent home because a contact has Covid.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Our education advisory group will advise ministers on whether, or to what extent, mitigations can be removed.

“This includes the wearing of face coverings and the self-isolation requirement for young people in education settings who are close contacts of positive cases.

"As part of our wider preparations for the new academic term, we will set out our plans and guidance for schools in advance of the new term.”

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