Scotland’s secondary school leaders’ organisation says it would “welcome” the removal of the requirement to wear face coverings in class for staff and all secondary students after the October break.
Tes Scotland has seen a draft version of the government's revised Covid-19 guidance for schools, expected to be published this week.
The draft – shared with stakeholders on Friday – shows the government is planning to remove the requirement for secondary staff and students to wear face coverings in class after the various October holidays around Scotland.
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Masks will still be required in communal areas in secondary and for any member of staff unable to socially distance – for instance, those working with children with additional support needs.
Under the new rules, students and staff members who wish to continue to wear masks will also be able to do so.
The draft guidance says: “Learners in secondary schools will no longer be required to wear face coverings in class, although they will still be required in communal areas. Staff should continue to wear face coverings in class if they cannot distance from each other or learners. As previously, learners and staff may still choose to wear face coverings in school.”
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Other key changes planned for next term are the return of assemblies and face-to-face parents’ evenings.
On the return of assemblies, the draft guidance says that “schools should consider carefully the numbers that can be safely accommodated” and that face coverings in secondary should be worn by staff and pupils “as this would constitute a communal area of the school”.
On parents’ evenings, it says “in-person parents’ evenings can take place as part of blended approach to parental engagement following the October holidays, and with appropriate consideration of the respective benefits and risks”.
The draft guidance also says that schools can get rid of one-way systems following a risk assessment, as well as staggered lunches.
Previously, School Leaders Scotland (SLS) has pushed for mitigations like masks to remain in place. However, SLS general secretary Jim Thewliss said that due to the increased uptake of the vaccine and the fall in the number of Covid cases, school leaders were now comfortable with the removal of the requirement.
According to figures published by the Scottish government on Thursday, last Tuesday (5 October) there were 14,414 pupils off school due to Covid, either because they were self-isolating or because they had the virus.
That was down from 18,034 the previous Tuesday (28 September) and the peak of over 40,000 absences recorded on 7 September.
On Tuesday (5 October) 2,130 school staff were absent as a result of Covid, compared with 2,330 staff on Tuesday 28 September and 3,223 staff on 7 September.
Mr Thewliss said: “We would welcome the removal of masks in class to improve engagement. We have now reached a position with the medical evidence that means it is saying it is safe to move in that direction. So we would be quite happy for young people to not be wearing masks if they felt comfortable with that.
“All the way through we have followed the advice coming through from the medical experts and we are comfortable with the removing of the requirement for face coverings – particularly because, if the situation changes, and things start moving in the wrong direction, it is an easy mitigation to put back in.”
The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), however, told Tes Scotland that it wants masks to remain in place until Christmas “at least”.
SSTA general secretary Seamus Searson said: “As far as we are concerned Covid is not over and we need to keep the protections in place in schools a bit longer.
“If teachers start to go off then pupils will be sent home and that will have a knock-on effect for everybody. Not all pupils are vaccinated, so we are not there yet.
“Schools are not like the rest of society. If I go to the pub it's likely 90 per cent or more of the people there are vaccinated but if I feel unhappy with the situation I can choose to leave. Teachers can’t do that; they are in front of that class and they cannot move out of that room
“To keep everybody safe we would prefer to keep masks in place longer – until Christmas at least.”
When Scottish schools returned following the summer break, the government had originally planned to review the mitigations in place in schools, including masks, after six weeks.
However, as a result of rising case numbers it said that mitigations would be kept in place until the October break and reviewed then.
The October holidays got underway in Scotland this week and a draft of the new guidance was issued to stakeholders – including the teaching unions and headteachers' organisations – on Friday.
The draft guidance says it is in keeping with the latest clinical and public health advice from the Advisory Sub-group on Education and Children’s Issues. It says that group advised that “given decreasing case rates across all age groups, current evidence on the state of the epidemic, and the efficacy of the vaccination programme, it would be appropriate at this time to move to baseline mitigations in schools”.
The draft guidance says that the new rules will come into force “after the October 2021 school holidays”, and local authorities and schools “should implement any changes as soon as is practicable in line with local circumstances”.
It says that removal of mitigations like masks that are “less logistically challenging” and that “a greater impact on curriculum and education” should be prioritised.
The Scottish government is expected to publish the final version of the guidance for schools this week.
A Scottish government spokesperson said: “The government’s decision to ease school mitigations is informed by the views of a number of stakeholders. This includes the expert advice and agreement of the Covid Education Recovery Group, which is made up of representatives drawn from across the education sector. In reaching a decision, it is vital that their views are considered.
“The cabinet secretary [for education, Shirley-Anne Somerville] will consider this advice and intends to make an announcement with further updates on school safety mitigations as soon as possible – as already set out by the first minister.”