A school leaders’ union has recommended all secondary schools ask pupils and staff to wear face coverings in communal spaces, despite the Government advising it is only required for those in local lockdown areas of England.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said ministers were following the “best scientific and medical advice”, adding that it was not necessary for face coverings to be mandatory in all schools across the country.
But in a message to members of school leaders’ union NAHT, general secretary Paul Whiteman said it would be “prudent” for masks to be used more widely.
He criticised the Government for “pass(ing) the buck” to secondary schools and colleges, who have been given the discretion to require masks if social distancing cannot be safely managed.
“Once again, many school leaders will feel as though the Government has passed the buck and handed the difficult decision over to them,” he said.
“We will continue to lobby the Government to take a clear and unambiguous line on this.
“In the meantime, NAHT’s advice is that it would be prudent for secondary schools to ask pupils and staff to wear face coverings in corridor and communal spaces unless there is a compelling reason not to.
“Erring on the side of caution would seem a sensible approach to take given the information coming out of the WHO (World Health Organisation).”
In the latest U-turn by the Government, updated guidance issued on Tuesday evening said face coverings should be worn in communal areas of schools with students in Year 7 and above which are in areas with coronavirus restrictions.
It followed pressure from teaching unions, which urged clarity before pupils return to school next week, and an announcement from Scotland that all secondary pupils there will be required to wear masks in between lessons.
Boris Johnson suggested the decision was influenced by the experience of pupils in Scotland, who have already begun returning to classrooms.
The Prime Minister told reporters: “What we’re saying is, if you’re in a school where there is a ‘hot spot’ then it probably does make sense in confined areas outside the classroom to use a face covering in the corridor and elsewhere.
“As they discovered in Scotland, where they’ve had the kids in for at least a couple of weeks now, what they found was that it was raining outside, people were coming in and they were congregating in the corridors and the move to face coverings, they thought, was sensible.”
The Welsh Government announced on Wednesday that face coverings in school communal areas, where social distancing cannot be maintained, will be recommended for pupils over the age of 11 in Wales.
On Monday, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”.
Mr Williamson then reiterated that masks were not required due to extra measures being adopted by schools, while a Number 10 spokesman said there were no plans to review the guidance.
When asked what had changed, Mr Williamson told Sky News on Wednesday: “We always follow and listen to the best scientific and medical advice, and that’s why we’re not recommending that face coverings should be mandatory right across the country in all schools.
“The best scientific and medical advice says that that isn’t necessary.”
He said the Government is following recommendations by WHO, which advises that masks should be worn by children over the age of 12.
The Government announced on Wednesday that every school and college in England will receive 10 home test kits each, which are to be offered to individuals who may not be able to access a test elsewhere.
They will also receive a one-off distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), including clinical face masks, aprons, gloves, visors and hand sanitiser, provided by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb said the kits and PPE were for use in “the very rare situations” they may be required, adding he hopes it acts as an “additional reassurance” to parents whose children are returning to school.
Coronavirus restrictions remain in place in areas of Greater Manchester, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Leicester, Luton and Northampton.
Measures in parts of northern England are expected to continue when they are reviewed on Thursday but could be more tightly targeted and focused on smaller areas, suggesting areas in lockdown could be subject to change.
Post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland will be asked to wear face coverings in corridors and other communal areas from August 31, when schools there return on a full-time basis.