Schools in England may need to reimpose face masks 'very shortly'

Schools in England may need to adopt tougher Covid rules and reimpose face masks ‘very shortly’ if the return of children triggers a surge in cases as feared, teaching union warns

  • Millions of youngsters are set to go back to the classroom over this week and the next for the autumn term
  • But this is expected to spark a ‘large’ Covid wave after the return of schools in Scotland caused an uptick
  • Teaching union leader Mary Bousted said today that face masks would be needed in schools ‘very shortly’ 

Joint National Education Union secretary Mary Bousted said masks will be needed in schools ‘very shortly’

Schools in England could be forced into adopting tougher Covid rules ‘very shortly’, teaching unions say.

Millions of youngsters will go back to classrooms over this week and next, sparking fears of an inevitable spike in cases.

As part of the Government’s goal of learning to live with the virus, ministers dropped all infection-controlling restrictions in English schools.

It means children no longer have to wear masks in class. Twice-weekly lateral flow testing is the only measure kept from last term.

But in Scotland — which has seen cases spiral to record highs since children went back in mid-August — masks are still required for now, and staff must keep a one-metre gap between each other and pupils.

Experts yesterday warned that England faces an even ‘worse’ uptick following the return of schools because of the lack of restrictions.

The country also has a higher rate of Covid than Scotland did when classrooms reopened.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘We have much higher prevalence now in the community than it was.

‘So we’re going in with much higher rates of prevalence into schools where we are relying on one mitigation, which is lateral flow testing. In Scotland they have not abandoned the safety precautions.

‘My prediction is that very shortly we are going to see schools all over the country in their hundreds having to operate contingency framework.’

Teaching unions have today predicted that schools would need to reimpose face masks ‘very shortly’ after reopening. Schools in parts of the South West have already brought back the measures (stock)

The above graph shows how Covid cases in Scotland have begun to more than double week-on-week since schools returned on August 17. The country has recorded a record level of infections for four of the past seven days. Experts warn England could face an even worse situation when its schools return

The graph above shows England’s Covid cases. It is feared that these will start to spiral next week after children return to the classroom

Parents back longer school days to help the Covid generation

The majority of parents want longer school days to help their children recover after losing months of learning and vital life experiences during lockdown.

A survey found that 51 per cent of parents support pupils spending extra time each day on activities such as sport and drama.

Only 19 per cent were opposed to the proposal, the YouGov poll revealed, while another 20 per cent said they would follow their school’s decision.

Last night, the plan championed by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think-tank was backed by former England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio, putting ministers under fresh pressure to act.

He said: ‘After the damage done to children by Covid restrictions, we owe it to them to make a new start. The plan is here – all it now needs is the political will to make it happen.

‘Pupils at public schools get hours of extra-curricular activity every week, including sport, drama and music. State school pupils, especially those from the poorest backgrounds, get far fewer of these life-enhancing opportunities.

‘The CSJ plan would help to narrow this gap to the benefit of millions of children and society as a whole.’

The call comes amid increasing concern over the toll of lockdowns and Covid restrictions on the young.

The CSJ unearthed data showing that almost 100,000 pupils – dubbed the ‘lost children of lockdown’ – failed to return to class after lockdown last autumn.

The think-tank, founded by former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, estimates that, pupils across England have missed almost a billion days in school since the start of the pandemic. The CSJ is campaigning for all children to be given five hours a week in extra classes covering areas such as sport, drama, music, art, cooking and debating. 

It comes as:

  • NHS hospitals could soon be equipped with airline-style pods and remote lighting controls to make A&E trips ‘less frightening’, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid said today;
  • Anti-vaccine mob has ambused a BBC journalist in Scarborough and told him the ‘nooses are ready’;
  • British minor escaped from Tenerife test centre after discovering he was infected with Covid but was then apprehended after trying to board a flight to the UK — and told to quarantine;
  • Bank holiday recording lag and tailing off of cases in England has seen UK’s daily Covid infections fall by 17 per cent in a week to 26,476 infections.

Ms Bousted told the Daily Telegraph: ‘But what you’re doing there is shutting the stable door after the Covid horse has bolted.’

Scotland was recording around 2,000 cases a day on August 16 when its schools started to return. This equated to an infection rate of 250 positive tests for every 100,000 people each week.

But in the last week it has broken its record for the highest number of daily cases registered four times.

Scotland posted more than 7,000 new infections on Sunday — more than three times above the levels seen during the darkest days of the second wave. Its infection rate is now 580 per 100,000.

In England there are already more than 20,000 cases a day, with an infection rate of around 320 positive tests per 100,000 people.

The country’s outbreak has tailed off over the past week but experts have always warned the return of schools would trigger an uptick.

When 8.9million children in England went back last September it led to Covid cases spiking four-fold in a month.

And they spilled over into older age groups, who are more vulnerable to the disease.

Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London and member of Independent SAGE, said yesterday: ‘Scotland is proving to be a cautionary tale of what happens when restrictions are dropped and then schools reopened without adequate mitigations. We can expect worse in England in the near future.’

She added: ‘Let’s remember schools in England won’t even have the few mitigations that are present in Scotland. So no masks, no ventilation, no distancing, no contact tracing in schools (contacts won’t even be asked to test!). This is a recipe for disaster.’

Dr Kit Yates, a mathematician at Bath University and fellow Independent SAGE member, tweeted that the impact of reopening schools on Covid cases would be ‘potentially disastrous’.

He said: ‘We will see cases rise in young people, but also in older age groups with all the attendant consequences (illness, hospitalisations and deaths and long Covid).’

‘We’ve had so long to do something about this, yet in recent months we have actually gone backwards (removing masks, bubbles, isolation of contacts, etc).’ 

Schools could improve children’s behaviour by keeping them in lunch ‘bubbles’, Gavin Williamson claims 

Schools should consider keeping children in lunch ‘bubbles’ this term to improve their behaviour, Gavin Williamson has suggested.

The Education Secretary is encouraging headteachers to extend the Covid measure because it has other benefits beyond restricting the virus.

The bubble system, which saw pupils eat with the same group every day to stop the virus spreading, has been scrapped for the new term this week. 

However, Mr Williamson said headteachers found it a great opportunity to teach ‘family dining’ – including table manners and social skills. 

He told the Mail: ‘It brings so many benefits – not just to children but to the whole ethos of the school…

‘Not all children will have that regular experience of being sat around a family dinner table. I think it’s an important part of their personal development and it supports… their educational development as well.’

Schools have autonomy over their behaviour policies and do not have to adopt Mr Williamson’s suggestion.

But even before the bubble system, family dining was adopted by a number of top schools to tackle poor behaviour.

Schools in parts of the South West will still ask pupils to wear masks in corridors, playgrounds and ‘communal areas’ when they return.

And a school in Rotherham has defied Government guidance and said it will maintain masks and support bubbles when pupils return to the classroom this week.

The headmaster of Wales High School in the South Yorkshire town Pepe Di’Iasio told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’re maintaining masks in crowded corridors, and in social areas because we feel that that will help keep the infection rates down.

‘But we’re also maintaining some of the pre-Covid rules of our one-way systems, and our separation of year groups that were formerly known as bubbles and they’re now just going to be kept in new groups again to try and just keep crowds down and keep the numbers apart.’ 

There is no national guidance on wearing masks, with all the remaining restrictions dropped in May.

The bubble system, which saw pupils eat with the same group every day to stop the virus spreading, was also scrapped.

No10’s Education Secretary has, however, said schools should consider keeping children in lunch ‘bubbles’ this term to improve behaviour.

Gavin Williamson is encouraging headteachers to extend the Covid measures because it has other benefits beyond restricting the virus.

But Mr Williamson said schools found it a great opportunity to teach ‘family dining’ – including table manners and social skills.

Writing for the Mail, he also urged parents to encourage their children to get regularly tested and to ensure they don’t get ‘carried away’.

Pupils will have to get tested twice at school on the first week of their return, under the Department of Education’s guidance. They should carry out two lateral flow tests a week at home thereafter.

Those who test positive will need to isolate for ten days. But other children they sit next to in the classroom will no longer need to isolate as well as part of the Government’s pledge to end quarantine restrictions.

Mr Williamson said: ‘The last thing we want is for schools to partially close again, or for whole classes of pupils to be at home self-isolating.’

During the previous academic year schools were launched into Covid chaos with some sending whole year-groups home after just one positive test.

Official figures show that at the end of the last academic year 750,000 children had been sent home to self-isolate, despite there being only 40,000 positive tests.

Lobby groups have blamed over-cautious teachers and staff for sending so many children home, and welcomed the Government’s decision to relax most Covid restrictions this year.

But teaching unions have already warned that school are set to be plunged into ‘chaos’ again in the weeks ahead should cases spiral rapidly. 

It comes after a survey last night showed the majority of parents want longer school days to help their children recover from Covid disruption.

Fifty-one per cent of parents support pupils spending extra time each day on activities such as sport and drama.

Only a fifth were opposed to the proposal – championed by the Centre for Social Justice think-tank, according to the YouGov poll.

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