Boris Johnson has urged teachers who insist masks should still worn in lessons to follow the rules which state that they are no longer required for use in classrooms.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said “children have been one of the hardest hit as a result of the disruption throughout the pandemic”, adding that Mr Johnson “believes it is vital that children are receiving face-to-face education and can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom”.
He added: “The Prime Minister also thinks that the schools should follow the latest guidance.
“We’ve been clear that we removed the requirement for face masks to be worn in classrooms and we will remove advice for face masks to be worn in communal areas from January 27.”
The news comes following an email from Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to MPs, stating he will personally vet any plans to bring back masks in classrooms, which unions have condemned as an example of Whitehall seeking to “micromanage” schools.
In a letter to MPs sent on Thursday, Mr Zahawi said he has agreed with directors of public health that in the event of “extraordinary” local Covid spikes, they will consult with him before recommending the reintroduction of face masks in schools in England, “so that we can assess evidence and data to ensure any extra measures are proportionate”.
Unions have said the intervention from the Education Secretary is “utterly unnecessary, if not bizarre”.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, told the PA news agency: “Schools and colleges who take the decision to keep face coverings as a requirement in classrooms will have… done so following a risk assessment, and with the head using his or her professional judgment and knowledge about what’s best for the school to protect face-to-face education.
“This is a sensible precaution, particularly given we are now in the run-up to national examinations and the issues to education caused by staff and pupil absences.
“That Whitehall would seek to micromanage such decisions seems utterly unnecessary, if not bizarre.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools were “put in a potentially difficult position” with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday that face masks would no longer be needed in classrooms from Thursday.
“The Government’s own guidance says that directors of public health may advise that face masks are needed in classrooms in response to local circumstances,” Mr Barton said.
“But schools are unlikely to have had any time in which to consult them, or in which to communicate the changes with parents and staff.
“It is therefore not surprising if some schools have continued to use face masks for the time being while they resolve these issues.”
Pepe Di’Iasio, the current ASCL president and headteacher at Wales High School in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, told PA that new safety measures for schools need to be carefully communicated with pupils.
He said his school will tell pupils they should no longer wear masks in classrooms, while it will no longer be compulsory for them to be worn in corridors from next week.
On the Prime Minister’s announcement, he said: “I was disappointed that we were suddenly working to dates and not data – all the way through this we’ve been talking about looking at data and all of a sudden, now we’re working to a date.”
He said his school is not seeing high Covid case rates but he added the timing of the announcement made communicating changes with pupils more difficult.
“We were all anticipating an announcement on the 26th and what we’ve now got is a difficulty with our students, because they will have heard the announcement at the same time as us, and so some of them will be saying: ‘I no longer need to wear my mask any more, do I?’ It’s about just having the clarity of those boundaries,” he said.
“Students are quite straightforward so some of them will think that if they don’t have to wear them there any more, ‘does that mean I don’t have to wear them anywhere any more?’ And that isn’t necessarily what the guidance is saying.”
He said the school will need to communicate with pupils that they might still need to wear masks on the private buses that take them to and from school, for instance.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “Face-to-face education for all students has consistently been my priority, and that is why I am removing face coverings from classrooms – as promised – on the earliest possible date, making sure there is as little disruption to students’ learning as possible and children can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom.
“National guidance to wear face coverings in communal areas will also be removed in line with the national move out of plan B. This applies to all schools – and if required local teams from DfE would work with individual schools to support them in implementing the guidance.
“As we transition from pandemic to endemic, my message remains the same as ever – testing and vaccinations are our best weapons against the virus – keep testing, and get your vaccination as soon as possible.”