Secondary school and college pupils in England will need to continue wearing face masks in class when they return after Easter, the Government has said.
It is hoped the precautionary measure will help limit the risk of transmission.
The move came after five education union leaders called on ministers not to “rush into” removing face coverings from classrooms after Easter without careful consideration of the scientific evidence.
The Department for Education (DfE) expects face coverings to no longer be required in classrooms when further easing of social contact limits indoors are confirmed in England, which will be no earlier than May 17.
Any changes to the policy will be confirmed with one week’s notice following a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates, the DfE said.
Secondary school and college pupils have been advised to wear face masks wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in class, since March 8, but ministers said the policy would be reviewed.
The latest review of scientific evidence found that – when used correctly – face masks in schools and colleges can reduce the emission of virus-carrying particles when worn by an infected user, alongside rapid tests.
Secondary school and college pupils were asked to take voluntary Covid-19 tests on site over the first fortnight of returning to class.
Now they are being sent home-testing kits to use twice weekly.
Last month, MPs heard that school leaders had received “threatening letters” from parents who did not want their children to wear face coverings.
But a joint letter – from the leaders of the National Education Union (NEU), NASUWT teaching union, NAHT school leaders’ union, GMB and Unison – said there was a “strong scientific consensus” that face masks can and should continue to be part of measures to suppress transmission of Covid-19.
The latest DfE attendance data found that around 87% of secondary school pupils were in class on March 25, a fall on March 18 when 89% attended.
The DfE said the main reason for absence among pupils who did not attend school for Covid-19-related reasons was self-isolation due to contact with a possible case inside the school.
All other safety measures will also remain in place in schools and colleges – including regulator asymptomatic testing, smaller group bubbles, increased hygiene, ventilation, and social distancing where possible, the DfE said.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Schools and students have done a great job adapting to Covid-secure guidance and working hard to make sure it doesn’t impact learning.
“We obviously all want to get back to facemask-free classrooms and we will do this in line with the latest scientific data while balancing the interests of students, teachers and the wider community.”
Those who are currently exempt from wearing face masks will remain so, including pupils and teachers who are speaking to, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip-reading or facial expression to communicate.
Professor John Simpson, head of Public Health Advice, Guidance and Expertise Pillar (PHAGE) at Public Health England, said: “The return to school after Easter will allow us to continue monitoring the impacts of measures to reduce the spread of Covid, as we encourage families to test regularly.
“Wearing face coverings in secondary schools is an extra control measure to reduce the risk of transmission to support children continuing their education in the classroom.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “We urged the Government not to relax this measure at this early stage and welcome the fact that our recommendation was taken on board. This is a sensible approach.
“Many other countries currently have stronger policies in place, and it would have been reckless to risk a resurgence of the virus, particularly when it is apparent that the face coverings policy is being well adhered to and is not causing any significant disruption.”
Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, said: “Wearing face coverings isn’t ideal, but they’re a valuable safety measure and will be needed for a while longer to allow schools to stay open.
“Keeping staff, pupils and their families safe and stopping wider infection spread is the most important thing. Any further decisions must be made according to the infection data, rather than dates.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The health advice on the wearing of face coverings by secondary school pupils in classrooms is clear and we therefore support the new guidance issued today.
“However, the use of face coverings is clearly not ideal in a classroom setting as it has the capacity to disrupt education and it is not something we want to see going on any longer than is absolutely necessary.
“We hope that the continued excellent progress with vaccinations mean it is no longer necessary for students to wear face coverings in lessons when the Government announces the next stage in the easing of restrictions in May.”