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Disquiet in UK schools as easing of mask restrictions in classrooms nears

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Teachers, pupils and parents have greeted the easing of coronavirus safety measures in schools from Monday with a mixture of relief and, in the light of concern over the Indian variant, dismay and confusion.

The government has announced that students will no longer need to wear face coverings in schools. But some areas in the north of England are being advised to continue measures, following rising numbers of cases of the new variant, known as B.1.617.2.

For many pupils, wearing a face mask is one of many sacrifices they have made in the fight against the pandemic, and they are pleased the rules have changed. Jessie Wright, 12, from High Wycombe, said she would be “relieved” not to have to wear one in the classroom. “The masks would get in the way of our learning. They are nice to wear when the weather is cold, but they’re uncomfortable when it’s hot.”

Some teachers, she said, would let you “pull down your mask sometimes” at the end of the school day to allow yourself to “get your breath back”.

“But other teachers would give you detention if you don’t wear your mask. It’s their decision,” she added.

Evie Hickman, 13, from Dorking, liked wearing a mask to avoid “talking to people”. “I’m not going to wear a mask from Monday, but they were useful,” she said. “I’m quite anxious to not cough on others. I do wonder if people will get bullied if they continue to wear masks after next week, though.”

The Department for Education said on Saturday that “the latest data shows infection rates continuing to decrease” and that not having to wear masks would “improve interaction between teachers and students”.

However, Bury and Bolton councils have written to parents, advising schoolchildren to “retain the use of face coverings as per the current arrangements, until further notice”, while Bedford borough council has called for all residents aged 16 and over to be vaccinated due to a rise of the variant first discovered in India.

Some parts of England, including Formby in Merseyside and Redditch in Worcestershire, have seen surge testing rolled out to try to curb the Indian variant. Parts of London, are also conducting surge testing: the Ruislip area of the borough of Hillingdon; the Woodlands area of the borough of Hounslow; the IG1 and IG6 postcodes in the borough of Redbridge, as well as parts of the IG5 and IG7 postcodes; and parts of E1 in Tower Hamlets and W11 in Kensington and Chelsea.

Some parents are worried by the dropping of masks in school. Evie’s mother, Claire, 48, who works as a nurse in the NHS, is “not particularly happy” about it. She said: “I feel like it’s too quick a removal. The infection rates are going down, and we are doing so well, but we still have a variant about. So why stop now and risk another lockdown?”

Teachers’ unions also have concerns. Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “We all want to see an end for the need to wear face masks. However, given the advice from Sage and the threat from new variants, it is disappointing the government has lifted the recommendation for them to be worn in secondary classrooms.

“The Department for Education guidance allows for the reintroduction of face coverings if need be, in response to local Covid outbreaks. The NEU believes it would have been more sensible to keep current mask-wearing arrangements in place, with a further review in advance of 21 June.

“This would keep staff and students safe and avoid more children losing out on face-to-face education because of virus outbreaks.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “No one wants to see face masks in classrooms for longer than necessary. Any changes to current guidance need to be clearly communicated in order to create confidence that they are the right thing to do, otherwise we will see an unnecessary shock to a system in recovery.”

He argued that parents, pupils and staff would want to understand why removing face coverings in classrooms is “considered appropriate” but not in other enclosed spaces.

He said: “We expect that school leaders will continue to work closely with their staff and communities and make decisions based on their risk assessments and local circumstances. We would back any school leaders who take a more cautious approach, because they know their own schools and communities best.”