Secondary school pupils in England will no longer be required to wear face masks in class from next week, the Government has confirmed.
The decision to remove the requirement in secondary schools and colleges came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that more indoor mixing will be allowed to take place from May 17.
MPs and parents have raised concerns about face coverings in class disrupting pupils’ learning and wellbeing since they were introduced in March.
But union leaders and scientists have called for them to remain in classrooms beyond next week to ensure pupils, staff, parents and the community are not put at risk of infection.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: “We will no longer require face coverings in classrooms, or for students in communal areas, in secondary schools and colleges.”
It is hoped the move – which has been taken amid declining infection rates – will improve interaction between teachers and students, and ensure the clearest possible communication to support learning.
But last week, five unions representing teachers and support staff – as well as scientists and parents – wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson urging him to keep masks in place until at least June 21.
Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, told the PA news agency that it would be “unwise” to remove masks from classrooms at a time when Covid-19 infections remain in schools and not everyone has received a vaccine.
Meanwhile, school leaders unions’ called on ministers to set out the evidence behind any relaxation of rules to address concerns about infection risk.
All other protective measures – such as ventilation and social distancing where possible – will remain in schools, and regular rapid testing will continue to help find asymptomatic cases when they do occur.
Staff are not required to wear face coverings in the classroom, but they should continue to wear them in communal areas, such as the staff room, where social distancing may not be possible.
Mr Johnson also announced that schools will be able “to organise trips with overnight stays”, but the Department for Education (DfE) is recommending that schools and colleges do not plan for international visits to take place before the start of the next academic year.
On face coverings, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), accused Mr Johnson of ignoring scientific advice as he warned “we are not out of the woods yet”.
He said: “Face masks help with suppressing transmission of the virus and therefore help to minimise the disruption caused when pupils or staff have to self-isolate.
“Schools and colleges are doing a very good job of keeping students and staff safe and they should be permitted to retain mask wearing in the classroom if they think it necessary for reasons such as a rise in local infection rates. This would be an entirely reasonable and responsible decision.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is obviously better for communication and learning if masks aren’t required in classrooms, but any decision to this effect must follow the scientific advice, and it is very worrying that the government’s decision appears to contradict the published evidence.
“This is particularly troublesome in light of the fact that a Covid strain first detected in India has recently been declared a ‘variant of concern’ by Public Health England as this would suggest the need for greater caution.”
He added: “For the sake of a few more weeks all this unnecessary anxiety could have been avoided and we don’t understand why the government is in such a rush over this issue.”
But Professor John Simpson, head of Public Health Advice, Guidance and Expertise Pillar (PHAGE) at Public Health England, said: “Scientific studies show that Covid-19 transmission in schools remains low. This evidence has been reviewed alongside criteria for the wider easing of restrictions.
“It’s important to strike a balance between Covid-19 protection and student wellbeing and the guidance on face coverings for secondary school pupils has been kept under constant review.
“Existing control measures in schools including good ventilation, handwashing, social distancing where possible and twice weekly testing remain hugely important.”
Mr Williamson said: “Over the past year we have always put the wellbeing of pupils and staff first, and this step is now the right one, as vaccinations protect the most vulnerable in society and we turn our attention to building back better from the pandemic.
“Testing in schools and colleges continues to be important, so I urge all students, families and teachers to keep testing themselves twice weekly, to help reduce the risk of transmission.”