Teachers' unions and scientists have written to education secretary Gavin Williamson calling on him to keep a requirement for masks to be worn in secondary schools, despite ministerial hopes that this rule can be lifted when lockdown restrictions ease from 17 May.
Last week, schools minister Nick Gibb said "the expectation is that if everything is successful, and the road map is going in the direction we expect it to go in, then we hope that face masks won't be necessary after that date".
But today's letter, signed by the NEU teachers' union, the NASUWT teachers' union and a coalition of nearly 20 scientists from leading universities, calls on Mr Williamson to avoid scrapping the requirement for older students to wear face coverings because of the risks of "long Covid" for staff and students.
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“To strip these necessary protections, when there are already too few mitigation measures in schools, and when rates of Covid-19 are still significant, would have consequences for the health of our children and their parents, as well as their communities,” the letter warns.
Covid: Plea not to remove face mask rules in secondary schools
It points to recent Office for National Statistics data confirming that there was a marked rise in Covid infections over March among pupils after schools opened for a few weeks before the Easter holidays. And the letter highlights how, according to the latest data, between 10 and 13 per cent of children infected with Covid develop persistent symptoms lasting for five weeks or more, an indicator of "long Covid".
Estimates from the ONS suggest that as many as 43,000 children and 110,000 school staff in the UK could be living with "long Covid". The letter says that while these figures are uncertain and more research is needed, they could also underestimate the real impact of long Covid as the current data tracks just 12 potential symptoms out of more than 30 recognised symptoms.
The letter, which has also been signed by several parents' groups as well as hundreds of parents and students, says that increased infection rates among pupils will put household members, parents and the wider community at risk, and that secondary students should therefore continue to wear face coverings in school when lockdown restrictions ease in May.
"Not only do masks help keep school students and staff safe, they are also a critical part of the overall effort to reduce community transmission and allow the safe lifting of restrictions, in general, to be achieved as soon as possible," the letter says.
"They also minimise educational disruption, allowing children to remain in school, while also protecting household members, including clinically vulnerable contacts, from onward risk of infection.
"We call on the government to provide clear masks for staff and schoolchildren, where needed, in order to aid communication and we support exemptions for children who cannot wear masks," the letter adds.
Catherine Wilson, head of support at Parents United UK, said: “The removal of masks for secondary school pupils contradicts the available health and safety information we have regarding Covid-19 and threatens to increase the volume of Covid-19 infections in our unvaccinated children and young people, in addition to school staff and families.”
The letter warns that current rates of vaccination in the UK are insufficient to fully mitigate the impact of transmission among children on infection rates in the community. It notes that Israel emerged from lockdown after fully vaccinating over 80 per cent of adults, and kept classroom mask mandates in place.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, of Queen Mary University of London, who co-signed the letter, said: “Scientists, school staff, parents and students are alarmed. We do not want a repeat of past mistakes that previously led to new waves, higher deaths and prolonged lockdowns. That’s why we’ve come together to urge the government to consider the global and national evidence on current infection rates in schools. Face coverings should be continued in schools after 17 May, with review prior to the next stage of the roadmap on the 21 June, to avoid the risk of new outbreaks.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is expected that face coverings will no longer be required in classrooms at step 3 of the roadmap, which will be no earlier than 17th May.
“The lifting of further restrictions at step 3 will follow a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates, and all other school safety measures, including regular asymptomatic testing, will remain in place.”