It is “inexplicable” that stricter guidance on mask-wearing in schools is not in place this term, given the rate of Covid cases, Labour's shadow education secretary has said.
Kate Green has also queried the effectiveness of the current system of identifying close contacts of coronavirus cases within schools, given its reliance on reports from children.
Speaking to Tes from Labour’s annual party conference, she was strongly critical of the government’s handling of the Covid crisis in schools.
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She said: “It is really inexplicable to me why guidance on mask wearing has been removed when Covid rates are 400 times higher than they were when masks were mandatory in March.”
In the past academic year, the Department for Education (DfE) said masks should be worn in communal areas of secondary schools. It then extended this to the classroom after the national lockdown in March.
However, it removed this guidance in May.
Ms Green said: “It seems to me that we are not out of the woods with this virus, so it’s right that we should take all reasonable mitigations that we can in school to keep everyone learning safely in class, because we know that is best for children’s learning and best for their wellbeing.
“They [masks] were mandatory as pupils moved around between classes, and perhaps in confined areas I think it’s sensible to take precautions.”
Ms Green also raised concerns about the way in which close contacts of Covid cases are identified.
Until the end of the last academic year, schools were expected to identify who the close contacts of Covid cases were and ask them to self-isolate.
However, there have been two major changes in the government’s approach to Covid management since then.
It no longer requires close contacts under the age of 18 to automatically self-isolate; instead, they are asked to take a PCR test.
The guidance also no longer requires schools to identify who close contacts are, with this work now being carried out by the NHS Test and Trace service.
Guidance sent to schools earlier this year said that children, or the parents and carers of those with Covid cases, would be asked who the child’s close contacts in school are.
Ms Green said: “I am concerned about the robustness of the contract tracing, particularly among younger children who are really not going to remember who they were sitting next to or playing with.
“It is something that teachers can’t be expected to do with all the other tasks they have got to fulfil and they haven’t got capacity for. But, equally, I think it’s concerning that the contact tracing that will be done is relying on children making their own reports of who they have been in contact with, and I am not convinced by this.”
Ms Green also criticised the government over the length of time it has taken to respond to the need to ensure schools are well ventilated.
She added: “We have known that it is in airborne virus for 450 days and yet the government is only now sending monitors to schools and this won’t improve a school’s ventilation, it will only measure the problem.”
She spoke to Tes ahead of her speech at the Labour Party’s conference in Brighton.
Speaking this morning, she told delegates that Britain will become the best place to grow up in under a Labour government.
She also confirmed the next Labour government will end tax breaks for private schools and will support the early years sector, schools and colleges with an education recovery premium.
She also insisted it is not just during the pandemic that children have been let down, adding: “For a decade, we have seen the effects of the Tories’ neglect and underfunding of education: class sizes soaring to their highest in decades, reversing the progress the last Labour government made; a SEND (special educational needs and disability) crisis as children have been left without the support they need, and parents left feeling abandoned; and a teacher retention crisis, with a third of teachers leaving our schools within five years.”
Ms Green said the party’s Children’s Recovery Plan would recognise that children’s learning and wellbeing “go hand in hand“ and would “set children up for life with communication, teamwork, problem solving, social skills“.
The plan would extend the school day for additional activities and see more investment in “training world-class teachers”.
In addition, it would give schools the resources to expand small-group tutoring, she added.
The plans include proposals for an Education Recovery Premium and give every school access to a professional mental health counsellor.
In an interview in Brighton on Sunday, Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, detailed plans to end the charitable status of England’s private schools to raise £1.7 billion to put more funding into state schools.
The DfE has been contacted for comment.