Face coverings are to be brought back for communal areas in England’s schools and colleges as part of measures to contain the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, it has been announced.
Under the new guidance, all staff, visitors and pupils in Year 7 – the first year of secondary school – or above, are “strongly advised” to wear a covering, unless exempt.
The measure, which applies from Monday, covers all education establishments including universities, as well as childcare settings such as early years care.
The guidance does not mean masks should be worn in classrooms but it is advised that they are worn in communal areas like corridors.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “The news of a new variant – the so-called Omicron variant – will have understandably caused concern for people across our country, including our teachers, wider education and childcare staff, parents, pupils and students.
“We are already taking targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we find out more information about the new variant.
“As we do so, we will continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and children continue to benefit from classroom teaching.
“We are working with education and childcare settings to enhance safety measures where needed, including introducing isolation for 10 days for close contacts of suspected Omicron cases.
“I’d like to thank everyone working to support our children and young people for their patience and hard work.”
The guidance is temporary and will be reviewed in three weeks, the Department for Education said.
Students in Year 7 or above should also continue to wear face coverings on public and dedicated school transport, unless they are exempt, the DfE said, and staff and students should continue to be encouraged to test themselves twice a week using lateral flow tests.
The department also said schools, out of school settings and colleges will “want to consider” whether to go ahead with any planned international trips at the current time, given the potential risk to education from the need to isolate and test when returning to the UK.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it supports the measures “as a sensible response to the risks posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19”.
But he added: “This worrying situation, however, emphasises the need for better support from the Government for the education sector.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We welcome the DfE guidance that masks must be worn by adults and children in Year 7 and above in communal areas. We think the DfE should go further and encourage mask-wearing in secondary classrooms and also plan investment to improve ventilation and air filtration.
“These steps can all help reduce the spread of Covid and thereby reduce disruption to education. Omicron makes the threat of disruption of education all the clearer: any close contacts of an Omicron case, staff or pupils, will have to self-isolate for 10 days, whether vaccinated or not.”
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union, welcomed the guidance but added: “If schools are to maintain safety during the remainder of this term, the Government will need to accept that its messaging needs to be stronger and that the rules governing isolation of close contacts in particular need to be clear and robust.”
He said the Government needs to consider bolstering its advice to require close contacts to self-isolate if they have Covid-19 symptoms, adding: “In the event that there is a delay in a pupil getting a PCR test, or refusing to do so, there is a real risk that close contacts of the new Omicron variant will continue to attend schools for longer than is appropriate, potentially putting others at risk of contracting the new variant and of further transmission of the virus in schools and in the wider community.”
Dr Roach said “significant numbers of pupils” do not undertake the recommended twice-weekly lateral flow tests and the Government “must identify a more effective strategy for Covid testing to ensure that all schools can continue to remain open safely”, while providing them with the resources to implement essential safety measures.