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Unions representing teachers and other school staff are calling on the government to reinstate masks in classrooms in England in response to a growing number of Covid outbreaks, particularly among secondary pupils.
Dozens of secondary schools in areas with high infection rates have already reintroduced mask requirements in the classroom as pupils returned to school after the half-term break this week, amid growing evidence that the Delta variant first identified in India is spreading rapidly in schools.
Now the National Education Union (NEU) and Unison are calling on ministers to bring face masks back into secondary schools immediately, with other unions likely to follow suit later on Tuesday.
The call came as official school attendance figures showed an increase in Covid-related absence. One in every 50 secondary school students in England was absent for Covid-related reasons before the half-term break with a huge rise in children self-isolating, according to the latest figures compiled by the Department for Education.
The DfE said there were 4,000 children in state schools with confirmed cases of Covid-19 on 27 May, the same as the previous week, but the number off school with suspected cases rose to 19,000, while the number self-isolating because of contacts within their school rocketed from 60,000 to 90,000, a 50% increase in seven days.
Schools in the north-west were particularly hard hit. In Bolton, 21% of primary and 31% of secondary pupils were absent for Covid-related reasons, among high rates of absence overall. In Blackburn with Darwen 15% of primary and 13% of secondary pupils were absent.
The NEU, which is the UK’s biggest education union with 450,000 members, opposed the government’s decision to lift the mask requirement in schools from 17 May. “We advised the government it was premature to be taking the masks away,” said Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary.
“This was a safety measure which was useful in suppressing the transmission of the virus in schools. It was one of the few safety measures the government insisted on. We will be arguing yet again that removing the requirement to wear masks was incomprehensible and it should be reinstated.”
A joint statement from all the leading education unions is expected later on Tuesday and they will be pressing their case at a meeting with Department for Education officials on Thursday.
According to a Public Health England report released on Friday, about one in 250 schools – 97 primary and secondaries – have had outbreaks with at least one variant case linked to them in the last four weeks. The cohort worst affected by the Delta variant in Blackburn with Darwen, currently the UK’s top Covid hotspot, is 12- to 18-year-olds, a pattern reflected in many areas with high rates.
Unison head of education, Jon Richards, said: “Infection rates are rising. Face coverings must be brought back into secondary schools immediately.
“Vaccinations for younger age groups must also be rolled out without delay, as soon as official approval is given. That’s the way to limit disruption and keep everyone safe.”
Many schools in areas in the north-west including Tameside, Cheshire and Oldham, as well as Bedford, Kent and Staffordshire, have reintroduced mask-wearing this week to try to stem the spread of the virus. Other schools in the north-west, including in Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton and Bury, had already asked students to keep their masks on last month.
Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser and the chair of Independent Sage, has called on the government to reintroduce mandatory face coverings in all secondary schools.
Since 17 May, secondary pupils nationwide have not been required to wear face masks in classrooms, although the DfE advises that local authorities can decide to reintroduce them in response to local outbreaks.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The latest data from government on the transmission of the Delta variant in schools is concerning, and raises serious questions about the government’s decision to ease some safety measures in schools last month.”
The DfE has been contacted for comment.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Teaching unions call for return of masks to classrooms in England | Secondary schools