Public health experts and school leaders want mask wearing to remain in schools in high spike areas and for jabs to be given to younger populations to help contain the rise of the so-called Indian variant of coronavirus.
Experts have said the wearing of masks in schools is “absolutely necessary” to combat the spread of Covid-19, despite government government guidance confirming that face masks in secondary school classrooms will no longer be required from Monday.
And some are calling for the green light for vaccination of secondary-age pupils to be prioritised to prevent wider spread of variants in communities.
Top scientist: 'It's dangerous not to wear masks now'
Face coverings have been mandatory in secondary schools and colleges since the return of pupils to school in March, but this will end as part of the phasing out of lockdown measures.
However, some secondary schools and colleges, in areas across the country where there has been a rise of cases of the Indian variant, are planning to keep face masks in place even after the relaxing of restrictions, amid concerns about a spike in the number of cases.
Scientists and public health chiefs are also calling for better ventilation in schools to ensure everything is done to curb transmission of the virus.
Masks in spike areas
Bolton and Bury councils are among those who have advised schools and colleges in their areas to keep face coverings in place until further notice, following a surge in coronavirus cases.
Secondary Schools in Bedford, where coronavirus cases in the borough have more than doubled from 39.8 cases per 100,000 to 84.3 cases per 100,000 in a seven day period, have also been advised to keep coronavirus restrictions and mask wearing in place for pupils.
“All schools have been very aware of the challenges we face with the Indian variant and, locally, we have recommended to all the secondary schools that they should not change anything and students should continue to wear masks.” Louise Jackson, portfolio holder for health and wellbeing at Bedford Council told Tes.
“We have not had any pushback on that, and the majority of schools are more than happy to continue with mask wearing as they want to do everything they can to protect families and the community.
“We know that everything schools have been doing so far has made a really big difference.
“We would not want them to change anything right now because, locally, we are in a precarious position.”
Watch: Bedford Council's Louise Jackson explains how she is working with schools to help keep people safe
She also says it is important for schools to get the air circulating in classrooms when people are indoors and says maybe the government could help schools with improving ventilation in classrooms as this would help keep people safer.
She described the rapidly rising cases of the Indian variant as “deeply worrying” and says what they are seeing is outbreaks among those who haven’t been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“We are seeing the virus manifested in school-age people because they are unvaccinated.” she said. “This virus is now impacting unvaccinated people and that’s why schools are being affected by outbreaks.”
Ms Jackson revealed to Tes that, in Bedford, they had managed to get hold of extra supplies of vaccine and piloted a flexible approach to vaccination by vaccinating the parents and families of students in schools affected by the Indian variant.
“We secured extra Pfizer vaccines and managed to vaccinate the parents and family members aged 30 to 39 of students in certain schools where we know the Indian variant has had an impact.” she explained.
She said they were finding entire households affected by the Indian variant so were trying to stop it being transmitted.
“There is nothing to suggest the vaccine is not effective against this strain, so it is the best defence and we want to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
“We are pushing for a rapid expansion of the vaccination programme for everyone over the age of 16.”
She highlighted that the vaccination programme has been a huge success in the UK and after hearing that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children aged 12 to 15 in the US, she is hoping Covid-19 vaccines will soon be approved for younger people in this country, too.
“We know from childhood immunisations that kids do spread things and that’s why we vaccinate them against illnesses as they can be ‘super spreaders’.
“I think halting the spread of coronavirus in schools through vaccination would make a huge difference in protecting our communities.”
On the issue of lifting the rule for face masks to be worn by pupils in secondary schools and colleges from Monday, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the major issue was how the restriction is being lifted completely rather than being phased out gradually.
“What we have received from the prime minister is a very black and white statement saying that face masks won’t have to be worn in schools and colleges.” he said.
“Many of our members were looking forward to the day when face masks would no longer have to be worn by pupils.
“However, when face masks were introduced to be worn in schools, it was done in a phased way. First there were no face masks; then there were face coverings needing to be worn in social areas and then, ultimately, the requirement for face masks to be worn in all areas. So our members were surprised that there was not a similar caution with a phasing-out approach.”
Mr Barton says that with the “more dangerous Indian variant” affecting various areas, school and college leaders were being placed in an awkward position when it came to face masks.
“It puts our members in a difficult position as they should not be making decisions about public health as that is not their job.” he said.
“So if their public health officials advise them that face masks should still be worn by pupils in schools, they will be following that and I think there will be a lot of parents reassured by this.”
He told Tes that in their discussions with the Department of Education, the issue of vaccinating students “started to be talked about”, but he doesn’t envisage it happening “that quickly”.
“The nature of the vaccine in younger people is not known about as there is not a lot of evidence about its effectiveness or side effects.
“However, we have been told that the way out of this pandemic is through vaccination. So, if scientists are saying 12- to 18-year-olds should be vaccinated, I think that would make sense.
“Even though these younger people are not at risk of becoming seriously ill with the virus, they are the ones who are transmitting and spreading it.”
Expanding the vaccination programme
The importance of vaccinating the younger population and stopping the onward transmission of coronavirus from secondary students is a sentiment shared by Professor John Ashton, a former North West director of public health.
He said: “In my view, we should be switching the vaccination programme to younger people, who are not at risk of dying or coronavirus but are more likely to be spreading it.
“The issue now is not so much about people dying but to stop the virus from circulating.
“Where there are outbreaks of the Indian variant, there should be vaccination of those who are more likely to be spreading it.
“We need to eliminate the virus from our communities and use vaccination as a tool to stop its spread.”
Gabriel Scally, professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of Independent Sage, said that, in his view, face mask wearing in schools was “absolutely necessary” and criticised the government for not giving schools enough investment to deal with coronavirus.
“One of my major concerns is that we have seen so little investment in creating a Covid-safe environment in our schools.” he said.
“The first thing we should be doing is making sure all our schools are really well ventilated.
“I certainly believe that face masks are still necessary in schools unless they are schools that are extremely well ventilated and doing a lot of teaching outside.
“In areas where there is a high incidence of the Indian variant, it is increasing very fast and looks to be even more infectious than the Kent variant.
“This virus is getting nastier and we do not know the risks in terms of whether it causes more serious effects or if it evades vaccine immunity.
“So I strongly believe that, in places such as Blackburn and Bolton, where the number of cases is high, we really should not be moving away from mask wearing in secondary schools.”
Professor Scally told Tes that he feels vaccinations should be given to all age groups in areas impacted by the Indian variant and he believes having vaccines approved in the UK for school-age students will be a major breakthrough.
“I think vaccination of school-age children is going to be a major weapon in fighting this virus.” he said.
“I worry about the potential long-term effects of people being affected by the virus. We do not know what the long-term implications of it will be, even on people who are only mildly affected by illness.”
However, Professor Tim Spector, who runs the ZOE Covid symptom app, which has been downloaded by more than 4.5 million people in the UK, disagrees about the need to vaccinate students and feels the UK is now in a new phase in moving on from a pandemic situation.
“I think everyone is slightly panicking over the Indian variant.” he told Tes. “Our rates show that although cases of the disease are going up, it does seem to be more mild and asymptomatic, and there are less people going into hospital with it.
“There is a group of people who still think you can eradicate this virus from the UK. But if you want that, you would need to vaccinate everyone, including children and babies, and keep a lot of the controls in place for a long time.
“But I do not think that is feasible so the other thing to do is to accept that we will all have to live with an acceptable level of the virus which affects people more mildly.”
Professor Spector says he is not convinced that “vaccinating children is the way forward”.
“I do think there is an argument that 14- to 18-year-olds should maybe be treated like adults and be vaccinated because they are more likely to be out and about, and mixing.” he said.
“Our ZOE app findings show there is not much difference between a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old when it comes to infection rates.
“However, an eight-year-old is not going to infect the community by going out, and socialising and mixing with large numbers of people.
“We also need to look carefully at the risks and benefits of vaccinating children.”
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.