Face coverings will have to be worn by college students until at least the middle of May, the government has said.
In an announcement this afternoon, the Department for Education said the guidance that masks should be worn by college staff and students in classrooms where social distancing cannot be maintained would remain in place as a precautionary measure when students return after the Easter break.
This, it added, would help to limit the risk of transmission and enable continued monitoring of the impact of school and college returns, as twice weekly Covid testing is established and embedded in students' routines.
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The DfE said it was expected that face coverings would no longer be required to be worn in classrooms, or by students in other communal areas of colleges, at step 3 of England's Covid roadmap – which will be no earlier than 17 May.
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The announcement said: "At that point, the next stage of easements, including increased social contact indoors, will be confirmed following a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates. It will also allow time for the vaccination programme to reach everyone in priority groups one to nine with their first dose before any change is committed."
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The return to school and college from 8 March has been an incredible success and I would like to thank staff, parents and pupils for their compliance with the guidance on reducing transmission of the virus.
“On top of the protective measures previously in place, such as regular hand washing and ventilation, we introduced face coverings in the classroom for secondary schools and colleges to help reduce transmission in parallel with the introduction of twice weekly testing.
“We obviously all want to get back to face mask-free classrooms and we will do this in line with the latest scientific data while balancing the interests of students, teachers and the wider community.”