Unions have warned parents that schools could close if not enough pupils wear face masks, raising the spectre that the long awaited return to classrooms could be short lived.
Schools across England reopen on Monday, in the first step in easing lockdown, but there are escalating tensions over the rules on pupils wearing face masks.
Government guidance now stipulates that masks should be worn in the classroom and anywhere indoors where it is impossible for secondary students to keep two metres apart, whereas previously when schools were open masks were only required in corridors.
This has caused an outcry among parents, MPs and health experts who fear that masks impede education and are uncomfortable for children, with insufficient evidence that they help to reduce transmission of the virus.
On Sunday night Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the main union representing secondary heads, said a letter had been issued to members to send to parents who raise objections about their children wearing masks when they return to school.
The letter, seen by The Telegraph, says that if not enough pupils wear masks it could create “ramifications” for a school’s insurance.
It explains that masks are one of the recommended measures schools need to take to get “risk of infection to an acceptable level to enable them to remain open”.
On Sunday the chief inspector of schools added her voice to the chorus of concern about face masks. Amanda Spielman said she hoped that they will only be necessary for a “short time”, adding: “I love the idea of children being able to come back in summer term able to see everybody fully."
Ministers have vowed to reconsider the advice at the end of this month after Public Health England analyses the impact of schools being open for three weeks.
A source close to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he is reluctant to prejudge the analysis and will wait for the review, but added: “He wants to see a return to pre-pandemic norms as safely and as soon as possible.”
The return to schools represents the first step in the lifting of lockdown. From Monday, people are also able to meet one on one to socialise as well as to exercise, and the government has confirmed that children under 5 do not count towards the limit, allowing grandparents to be reunited with young grandchildren.
Despite the reopening of schools,up to 2.5 million pupils will still be at home on Monday as the vast majority of secondary heads (76 per cent) said they will phase the return to the classroom in order to carry out mass testing, according to a poll by ASCL.
The Prime Minister hailed the moves as the "first step in our cautious easing of lockdown restrictions".
He told the Telegraph that while this is "only a small relaxation of the rules", it will bring "joy and relief" to families after months of "tough restrictions".
Boris Johnson (pictured below during a visit to a vaccination centre on Sunday) also warned the risk of keeping pupils at home was greater than the danger of a spike in infections brought about by reopening schools.
“I think the risk is actually in not going back to school tomorrow given all the suffering, all the loss of learning we have seen,” he said.
Ministers are determined to keep schools open, with public health leaders and Government figures indicating that schools in England will not be forced shut even if there is a surge in Covid cases.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England's strategic response director for Covid, told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show that even if the R rate goes above one, “I don’t think we should pause children going back to school.”
The Government is under increasing pressure over its guidance on face masks. The Department for Education (DfE) says that while masks are strongly encouraged, it is not a legal requirement and pupils should not be "denied education" as a result of non-compliance.
Mr Barton said he has warned ministers that the “apparent contradictions” in official guidance on masks has led to bitter disputes between parents and schools.
Parents have been using template letters, created by lawyers and circulated on social media, to tell schools that there is a “significant risk” that masks will cause children mental and physical harm and that putting children in danger in this way is “not justified” as well as “unlawful”.
ASCL has sought legal advice and prepared its own letter for headteachers to send parents who say they object to pupils wearing masks in the classroom.
The letter says: “Wearing a face covering is one of the recommended measures schools are being asked to take to get the risk of infection to an acceptable level to enable them to remain open.
“As part of our risk assessment, the School has determined that wearing face coverings is an important measure that helps to mitigate the risk of spreading Covid 19 amongst pupils and staff, particularly in light of concerns expressed over new, more contagious variants that may have more resilience to the current vaccines in circulation.
“The School remains concerned that if face coverings are not made compulsory and/or a high percentage of pupils choose not to wear them, it could undermine the risk assessment and raise the risk of infection to the pupil or others in the school community.”
Responding to the union's intervention, Molly Kingsley, co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said: “This is either non-binding guidance, in which case there should be no penalty for non-compliance, or it is mandatory in which case the Government needs to come out and own it.
"An outcome where schools are threatening to close because children aren’t wearing masks would seem to be contrary to the Department for Education’s statements that this is not mandatory, it's a recommendation.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported Unions had threatened that schools would shut if children didn't wear face masks. The Association of School and College Leaders has asked us to make clear that the proposed communication to parents was not a threat, but a request that children wear face masks so as to assist in infection control so schools can remain open. We are happy to make this clear