Unions representing teachers and other school staff have called on the government to reinstate masks in classrooms across England in response to a growing number of Covid outbreaks, particularly among secondary pupils.
With infections on the rise and new figures showing Covid-related absence up among schoolchildren in England, four unions have issued a joint statement urging ministers to adopt a range of safety measures to limit transmission and reduce the risk of further closures.
The statement, signed by the National Education Union, Unison, the GMB and Unite, demands the immediate reintroduction of face coverings for students and staff in all areas of secondary schools, including classrooms.
They also want to see a rapid rollout of vaccinations for pupils, following confirmation from the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) that they are safe for children aged 12 and over, to inhibit the spread of the new Delta variant first identified in India.
The government has so far ruled out a nationwide reintroduction of masks in schools, putting its faith instead in testing, but public health directors in Covid hotspots have the powers to reintroduce face coverings in schools if they feel it is necessary.
The joint union call came as official school attendance figures showed one in every 50 secondary school students in England was absent for Covid-related reasons before the half-term break with a huge rise in children self-isolating, according to the latest figures compiled by the Department for Education.
The DfE said there were 4,000 children in state schools with confirmed cases of Covid-19 on 27 May, the same as the previous week, but the number off school with suspected cases rose to 19,000, while the number self-isolating because of contacts within their school rocketed from 60,000 to 90,000, a 50% increase in seven days.
Schools in the north-west were particularly hard hit. In Bolton, 21% of primary and 31% of secondary pupils were absent for Covid-related reasons, among high rates of absence overall. In Blackburn with Darwen 15% of primary and 13% of secondary pupils were absent.
The union statement said: “Education unions are deeply concerned that secondary school age students now have the highest rates of Covid-19 infection of all age groups, according to Public Health England (PHE) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, and those rates are rising.
“At the weekend, the health secretary acknowledged that ‘a huge proportion of the latest cases are in children’, that they pass on the virus to the local community and face risks from long Covid. Action must be taken now to make face-to-face learning safer over the remainder of the school term.”
The NEU, which is the UK’s biggest education union with 450,000 members, opposed the government’s decision to lift the mask requirement in schools from 17 May. “We advised the government it was premature to be taking the masks away,” said Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary.
“It was one of the few safety measures the government insisted on. We will be arguing yet again that removing the requirement to wear masks was incomprehensible and it should be reinstated.”
According to a PHE report released on Friday, about one in 250 schools – 97 primary and secondaries – have had outbreaks with at least one variant case linked to them in the last four weeks. The cohort worst affected by the Delta variant in Blackburn with Darwen, currently the UK’s top Covid hotspot, is 12- to 18-year-olds, a pattern reflected in many areas with high rates.
Many schools in areas in the north-west including Tameside, Cheshire and Oldham, as well as Bedford, Kent and Staffordshire, reintroduced mask-wearing this week to try to stem the spread of the virus. Other schools in the north-west, including in Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton and Bury, had already asked students to keep their masks on last month.
A government spokesperson said: “Attendance in schools remains high, and the data shows the steps we are taking to keep outbreaks of the Delta variant under control in schools are working.
“On top of robust measures in place across the country, such as increased ventilation in classrooms and keeping to small group bubbles, we have increased the availability of testing for staff and pupils in families in areas of high prevalence of the variant.”