Schools minister hopes face masks in class will no longer be needed from mid-May
Nick Gibbs said a decision would depend on the data.
The schools minister hopes that pupils will no longer have to wear face masks in class in secondary schools and colleges in England from mid-May.
But Nick Gibb said the decision on whether to lift the precautionary measure when further easing of social contact limits indoors are confirmed, which will be no earlier than May 17, will depend on “the data”.
His comments came after MPs raised concerns about face coverings disrupting pupils’ learning and wellbeing.
During the education select committee, Caroline Johnson, Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, said she had heard many stories of children “really suffering” as a result of wearing masks.
She said: “Particularly as we’ve entered hayfever season and the pollen can lodge in the mask as the extra heat contributes to children who have skin conditions like teenage acne.
“So the mask wearing is becoming more difficult for young people particularly on top of the communication skills issue.”
Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, suggested that some deaf students were “losing out” because not all teachers were wearing clear face masks.
She said: “I’ve been contacted by pupils who are deaf and the impact of having a clear mask for all teachers is very important for them, but they’re saying that doesn’t always happen for deaf pupils and so they’re losing out at the moment on education so will that impact the assessment there?”
Earlier this month, the Department for Education (DfE) said secondary school and college pupils in England would need to continue wearing face masks in class when they return after Easter, but the DfE expected to remove the requirement as part of the next stage of lifting the coronavirus lockdown.
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.
Addressing MPs’ concerns on masks, Mr Gibb said: “There will be a review leading up to step three of the road map and the expectation is that if everything is successful, and the road map is going in the direction we expect it to go in, then we hope that face masks won’t be necessary after that date.
“But of course it depends on the data and the evidence and the advice that we’re getting from Public Health England.”
When pressed on the impact of masks on pupils’ mental health, Mr Gibb said students did not seem to mind wearing face coverings and the profession were “keen to keep” them in place until at least May 17.
Pupils and teachers who are speaking to, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip-reading or facial expression to communicate, are currently exempt from wearing face masks in class.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “No-one wants to see pupils or staff wearing face masks for longer than is necessary.
“But the Government should not rush into changing this policy without careful consideration of all the scientific evidence surrounding the wearing of face coverings in schools.
“Clearly, the safety and well-being of all members of school communities and their families should remain our primary concern.”