Schools and councils to decide whether students will use face masks

Facemasks in school
The Chief Medical Officer for Wales has recommended that students over 11 wear masks. Credit: PA

Schools and local authorities will make the decision on whether face coverings are necessary for students when they return to education, the Welsh Government has said.

Students over the age of 11 in Wales will be told to wear face coverings in school communal areas where social distancing can't be maintained, but coverings will not be necessary as social distancing is still required with face-to-face teaching.

In a joint statement on Wednesday the Health Minister Vaughan Gething and Education Minister Kirsty Williams said that they would continue to monitor guidance if the medical advice changes.

It comes after Mr Gething was asked about the return to schools at the coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday.

He stated that there would be fresh guidance before the end of the week.

"We will amend our operational guidance for schools and FE to require settings and local authorities to undertake risk assessments of their estates to determine if face coverings should be recommended for their staff and young people in communal areas," the joint statement said.

"Face coverings may need to be provided to young people who don't have them, if they are recommended locally." 

Scotland has already announced school pupils as young as five will have to wear face masks in some settings from next week.

The decision has been criticised by the NAHT union for headteachers across Wales, with director Laura Doel saying that it is unfair for school leaders to 'shoulder the responsibility of the decision'.

“It is unacceptable that school leaders are expected to shoulder the responsibility of deciding if face coverings are required in schools," she said.  

"Headteachers are not medical experts and the Welsh Government should not put them in this position.

“Everyone wants to see pupils back in class, with their teachers and their classmates. School leaders and their teams have worked hard over the summer playing their part to get schools ready for the start of the Autumn term.

“There needs to be absolute clarity about who is required to wear face coverings and when they need to be worn, this should include clear information in regards to pupils, teachers and parents.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething has said schools and local authorities will decide if masks are necessary for students. Credit: PA

“If the government leaves this decision-making to individual schools or Local Authorities we will once again we will see a mixed economy across Wales, with different schools having different measures in place which will be unsettling and potentially unsafe for pupils, parents and staff alike."

Ms Doel also stressed her concern that a decision to make masks mandatory in some schools would come at an unforeseen cost.

“If face coverings become mandatory in certain schools, then they will have to purchase many thousands of masks," she continued.

"This will undoubtedly come at an additional and unforeseen cost and may result in shortages as demand increases.

"The government needs to guarantee that enough masks will be available to schools and that the costs of getting hold of them are met in full or run the very real risk that schools will not reopen next week.”

Pupils in Wales will begin returning to school on 1 September.

The announcement comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson u-turned on his advice regarding face masks in schools following pressure from teachers, unions and medical experts.

Colleges Wales agreed with Ms Doel that the cost of masks could prove an issue as the country continues to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Chief Executive Iestyn Davies said, “Our principals are considering the use of face masks as a requirement in all communal areas within further education colleges.

"Their use clearly has both cost and health and safety implications. This is an issue that is not going away as we approach the recommencement of teaching for all ages across Wales.”