Teachers and headteachers in England are likely to continue acting “on the cautious side” despite the easing of coronavirus safety measures in schools, such as mask wearing in the classroom, a school leader’s union boss has warned.
The government has announced, from Monday, that the requirement for masks in secondary school classrooms and for students to wear them in communal areas of schools and colleges will be removed.
But some areas in the North of England are being advised to continue with these measures in schools, following rising numbers of cases of the Indian variant.
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Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said staff were still “anxious” and required measures to “give a sense of reassurance”.
“As you can imagine that teachers and staff are anxious…because they are surrounded by large groups of young people who are going to be the last people to be vaccinated,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“So there is a tendency among the staff to be on the cautious side and to think that face-coverings – while they’re only one element in all of this – let’s keep that one element because it will give that sense of reassurance that we’re not rushing this too quickly.”
Mr Barton added that the government guidance on wearing face coverings in schools had caused “snarky” conversations between teachers and parents.
MPs and parents have raised concerns about face masks in class disrupting pupils’ learning and wellbeing since they were introduced in March.
“Parents who heard what the prime minister said will say: ‘Well, why are you possibly not ending face coverings in my school or college?’ And I think it’s made it more difficult to navigate our way through the communication,” said Mr Barton.
“Everyone heard an announcement that was rather cut and dry from the prime minister (on Friday) rather than more nuanced.
“So there have been one or two snarky conversations with parents who don’t want their children wearing face coverings.
“Ultimately, governors and heads will follow public health advice and will insist, if it’s necessary, that face coverings continue to be worn.”
It comes as local authorities in the north asked secondary schools and colleges to keep face coverings in place until further notice.
Cases of the Indian variant have been detected in Bolton in Greater Manchester, Blackburn in Lancashire and Sefton in Merseyside, which have all seen rates rise rapidly.
The directors of public health from Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council are advising schools and colleges across the county to keep face masks in place until June 21.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, said: “This is a very tough recommendation to make at a time when the restrictions are set to ease nationally on Monday May 17.
“But the increase in prevalence of this variant in the North West means we need to take some prudent steps to help reduce its spread.
“Wearing face coverings in schools and colleges for a few weeks longer will help to contain this and ensure the variant doesn’t take hold.
“This is vital so we can build on the good work to keep levels of infection, hospital admissions and the numbers of people becoming seriously ill low.”
Bolton and Bury councils have made similar requests.
A letter from Bolton council to parents said it was “asking schools to retain the use of face coverings, as per the current arrangements, until further notice”.
Bolton is the area with the highest rate of cases, with 553 new infections in the seven days to May 9.
The letter, from the council’s children’s services and public health directors, said: “There have been instances where young people attending school or college have contributed to the spread of the virus.
“We believe it would be irresponsible to wait until we have higher levels of the newer variants of Sars-CoV2 circulating before we act.”
A similar letter has been sent from Bury council to parents advising face masks to be retained in class and the council said all secondary schools and colleges in the area are following the advice.
A government spokesperson said: “The prime minister has set out the measures needed to tackle the new variant of concern.
“In line with our plans, published earlier this week, to address variants of concern in education, we have also agreed with directors of public health that face coverings will remain in place in Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton.
“We are continuing to work closely with local authorities in these areas.”