'Clear direction' needed on face coverings in schools, teaching union says

Pupils have their temperatures checked at a school
The issues of whether pupils should wear masks should be kept under review, an education union has urged. Credit: PA

"Clear direction" is needed from the government on whether pupils should wear face coverings in schools, a teaching union has said.

Despite England's education secretary insisting the measure is not needed as schools in England prepare to reopen, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is calling for the issue to be kept under review.

It comes as the Scottish Government is expected to state its decision on face coverings in schools in light of the latest guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that children aged 12 and over should wear a mask.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said as evidence continues to emerge, Westminster should review its guidance.

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton told the Daily Telegraph: “We would expect the government in Westminster to review its guidance on the use of face coverings in schools – which currently says they are not required – in light of the WHO guidance and the consultation taking place in Scotland.

“The evidence is clearly evolving on this issue and it is important that it is kept under review and that clear direction is provided to schools.”

But Professor Russell Viner, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there was concern about younger children wearing face coverings.

He told BBC2’s Newsnight: “The evidence on masks is very unclear. And, actually, I think that’s in one sense, potentially going beyond the evidence we have.

“There are lots of concerns about mask wearing for children, particularly younger children. Because they touch their face, they are constantly worried about the mask, it actually could, potentially. spread the virus more.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said the evidence on whether pupils should wear masks was not strong Credit: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/PA

“I think for young children it (would be) clear it is not a good idea. For teenagers, again, I think, we don’t have the evidence this is useful.”

On Monday, a Number 10 spokesperson said there were “no plans” to review the guidance on face coverings in schools.

He added: “We are conscious of the fact that it would obstruct communication between teachers and pupils.”

England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries has said the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was “not strong”, while Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said measures being adopted by schools to limit the spread of coronavirus meant masks were not required.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) advice suggests adults and children aged 12 and over should wear a mask, particularly when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.

The WHO and UN children’s agency Unicef suggested that face shields may be an alternative in situations such as speech classes where the teacher and pupils need to see each other’s mouths.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green has already said the issue should be kept under review.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her Education Secretary John Swinney is in the final stages of consulting with teachers and councils on whether to recommend the use of masks when moving around schools.

It is expected the government will give its response to the WHO guidance during topical questions on Tuesday afternoon.

Face masks are mandatory in shops and on public transport but pupils do not have to wear them in schools. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, a study suggested wearing face masks may have a negative effect on attitudes towards social distancing, leading people to feel comfortable sitting or standing closer to others

The research, by a team of behavioural scientists at Warwick Business School, also indicates people would keep a smaller distance from others wearing masks.

The scientists say their findings could make it difficult to re-establish social-distancing measures if they are needed to help control the virus in the event of a second wave of cases.