The decision to end the requirement for face masks to be worn in secondary school classrooms from Monday is “premature” and lacking in “empathy and understanding”, particularly in light of rising cases of the Indian variant of the coronavirus, according to teachers and public health experts.
Fears over the move have been voiced after teaching and school staff unions including the NEU, NASUWT and Unison wrote to schools and colleges yesterday calling on them to keep a requirement for students to wear face masks until 21 June, following news of the so-called Indian variant "spread clearly occurring within schools and into the community all across England".
And it has emerged that local public health officials have advised some schools in the Greater Manchester area to continue requiring masks in classrooms after 17 May.
One headteacher told Tes that he believes teachers and headteachers are “being thrown under the bus by the prime minister”, with the relaxed guidance being foisted upon them without a proper explanation behind the decision that they can pass on to concerned parents and communities.
Boris Johnson: Masks not required in classrooms from Monday
“We need to deal with ‘science fact’, not science fiction, and a headline does not give us the information we need to know as to why the decision to do this now has been made.” said Vic Goddard, co-principal at Passmores Academy in Essex.
Covid and schools: Face masks rule 'lifted too early'
“The PM throwing teachers and headteachers under the bus is not very helpful. He can see the science, but we are the ones who have to justify the decisions.”
Boris Johnson confirmed this week that the requirement for face masks to be worn in secondary schools and colleges by students in classrooms and communal areas will be lifted from Monday 17 May.
However, the rule stating that school staff and other adults should wear face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible, such as in corridors, will remain in place.
The move to relax the face mask rules came despite unions and scientists writing to the government calling for face coverings to remain in schools until at least 21 June, and after it emerged that the government's own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies had recommended that restrictions, including masks in classrooms, remain in place.
And yesterday it emerged that public health officials at Bolton Council had advised schools in the borough to retain "wearing of masks in classrooms and indoor circulation/social spaces" from Monday due to the "current position within Greater Manchester", which has seen cases of the Indian variant rising in Bolton and other areas.
Mr Goddard criticised the timing of the lifting of mask restrictions in schools and said he was baffled why the government had not waited another two weeks until after half-term, when there will be fewer students in schools across the country.
“The timing of it is nonsensical from a logistical perspective,” he said. “It is just really bad timing to decide to do this before a holiday that every school in the country has.
“I can’t understand why they didn’t just wait another two weeks until the Year 11 pupils had left. Why not wait until we have less kids in school?
“That would have made it a safer environment and we would not have had the same kickback from parents.
“The timing of it shows a real lack of empathy and understanding of the strain that schools are under right now.”
Watch: Lifting the masks rule 'shows a lack of empathy and understanding' of the 'strain' on schools
Mr Goddard said that since Mr Johnson’s announcement about student face mask rules being lifted, he had been contacted by around 20 parents and they were evenly split in their views.
He said allowing schools to make the decision themselves on whether to still enforce face mask wearing after 17 May is unfair as it puts headteachers potentially in conflict with their communities.
“I have had some parents threatening me with legal action if I keep their child in a mask and others telling me I am putting their child and their family at risk,” he said.
“I am sending letters home to parents telling them that mask wearing is no longer compulsory for students at all from Monday, but that we would encourage them to wear them, particularly when moving around the school.
“We are following the guidance that says pupils do not have to wear face masks. But the government needs to give us the science behind that decision.
“We need to have the answers to the questions we are being asked.”
He added that the rise in cases of the Indian variant of the coronavirus was particularly concerning and made the timing of the ditching of compulsory face masks for students even more difficult to comprehend.
“We know very little about the Indian variant apart from seeing the devastating impact of the coronavirus in India,” he said.
“Literally in two weeks’ time, most schools will lose at least 20 per cent of students in their school.
“Schools will have more space and room to breathe without being on top of each other. So why not wait until then?”
Although it is left up to schools to decide if they still want students to wear face masks after 17 May, Mr Goddard believes making it optional simply won’t work as peer pressure will mean the majority of students will abandon wearing masks.
“By half-term, there will be very few, if any, young people wearing a mask,” he said.
What is the Indian Covid variant and should schools be concerned?
During the Covid-19 crisis, different strains of the virus have mutated and transmitted across the world.
The Indian variant – which is named after the country it was first discovered in – is B.1.617.2 and there have been at least 48 clusters and more than 1,300 cases reported in the UK, including cases in secondary schools, care homes and places of worship.
Public Health England has said the Indian strain is at least as transmissible as the Kent strain and, as a result, the Indian variant has been described as a variant of concern.
In late 2020, the Kent variant spread rapidly through England, leading to England going back into lockdown.
Scientists and health officials have expressed concern about the decision to stop the mandatory wearing of masks in secondary school classrooms when there is a risk of Covid variants. And schools in areas such as Bolton and Bury, which are seeing spikes of the new variant, are now being asked to keep face coverings in place.
Professor Trish Greenhalgh described the decision to remove masks as wrong when the classroom is a “potentially dangerous place for catching Covid.”
Masks 'should stay until September'
Professor John Ashton, a former North West director of public health, told Tes that it is “premature” to stop making face mask wearing compulsory in schools and said that, in his view, it would be better to wait until September before making such a move.
Professor Ashton, who has written a book called Blinded By Corona, which describes the mistakes he believes the government made in its handling of the coronavirus crisis, said: “The Indian variant is extremely worrying as it seems to be very contagious and we don’t know what the impacts are for things like long Covid.
“I definitely think the government should not be dropping masks in schools for pupils at this stage. It’s not a big deal for people to wear masks, so it seems pointless dropping it earlier than necessary.
“Schoolchildren should keep wearing masks until at least the end of the summer term. It is all a bit too early to be stopping these things.
“The problem is that while there are new variants circulating, it brings the risk of even more new variants due to mutations.
“We need to eliminate this virus from our communities, and school pupils continuing to wear masks will help to do this.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said it was important to highlight the fact that schools do still have the power to continue requesting that masks be worn.
“No one is saying to schools that they can’t retain masks.” she said. “There are areas where the Indian variant seems to be on the rise, such as Blackburn with Darwen, so it would make absolute sense that schools in these areas keep mask-wearing in place.”
However, she said it was “puzzling” that the government had chosen to abandon mandatory masks for students in secondary schools when “their own advisory committee has said masks suppressed virus spread by about 30 per cent”.
“I know this is a complex issue and our members are very divided on this. But this decision is puzzling when you still need to wear a mask on buses and other crowded places.
“If this new Indian variant is as infectious as things seem to suggest, it is likely that if cases rise, there will be another direction from government making mask-wearing compulsory for pupils again.
“Schools have the discretion whether to continue mask-wearing or not, and that should absolutely continue.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.