Covid: Masks in secondary school not mandatory due to pupil anxiety, minister says

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Secondary school students will not be forced to wear face coverings in classrooms, as some will be "anxious and nervous" about wearing them, an education minister has said.

Millions of pupils in England began to return to class after months of remote learning on Monday, with almost all expected to be back at their desks by the end of the week.

Children’s minister Vicky Ford said secondary school pupils should be "strongly encouraged" to wear masks but has decided against making their use mandatory due to pupil anxiety.

The Department for Education (DfE) is advising secondary school and college students to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in the classroom.

Asked whether schools where there is not much mask-wearing should close, Ms Ford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "No, I think that we should strongly encourage them to wear the masks, I think the vast majority of young people, they get this.

Secondary schools are staggering returns from Monday Credit: PA

"But there will be some who will be very anxious and nervous about doing so and that’s why we understand that and that is why we have not made it mandatory but we have strongly encouraged this."

All children are able to return to class from Monday under the first step to ease restrictions in England, but secondary schools can stagger the return of students over the week to allow for mass testing.

Secondary school pupils are being asked to take three voluntary Covid-19 tests on site and one at home over the first fortnight.

They will then be sent home-testing kits to use twice-weekly.

Ms Ford caused some confusion when she said a child who tests positive with a lateral flow test but subsequently receives a negative PCR result should not return to school, but she was overruled by Downing Street.

Number 10 confirmed a child who receives a negative PCR test following a positive lateral flow test should return to school - this is because PCR tests are more reliable than lateral flow tests.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told reporters during a visit to a school that a false positive from a lateral flow test is "very unusual", around one in 1,000.

Primary school children are not being asked to carry out Covid-19 tests or wear face coverings.

Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, has previously warned that ministers risk creating "mask anarchy" unless regulations on face coverings in schools were made clearer.

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Last week Geoff Barton, general secretary of The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told MPs that it would be "much easier" if government guidance on face coverings was "black and white" as he said headteachers could "do without" disputes about face masks.

Pupils in England, except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, have been learning remotely since the start of the lockdown in January.

An Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) survey suggests that nine in 10 parents would send their child back to school this week even if it was optional.

The government has introduced asymptomatic coronavirus tests for secondary school and college pupils, as well as tougher measures around face masks, ahead of the full reopening.

But school leaders have been struggling to get parents’ permission for the voluntary tests, and some are concerned that pupils will refuse to wear face coverings in classrooms as they are not mandatory.

A recent poll by ASCL found that more than half of heads have faced difficulties in securing parental consent for pupils to take part in rapid tests.

The ASCL is providing members with a template letter that they can use in response to letters some schools have received objecting to the use of face coverings.

The letter says a school’s risk assessment could be undermined, health and safety problems created and there could be insurance ramifications if a high percentage of students choose not to wear face masks.