Schoolchildren told to wear masks in classrooms in bid to stop spread of Omicron

2 January 2022, 00:01 | Updated: 2 January 2022, 11:59

Children are being asked to wear masks in the classroom again.
Children are being asked to wear masks in the classroom again. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

Secondary school pupils in England have once again been asked to wear face masks in classrooms in a bid to limit the threat posed by the Omicron variant.

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The move will "maximise the number of children in school" for the "maximum amount of time" in light of the recent surge in the highly-transmissible strain of the virus, the Government has said.

However, the recommendation will only be in place temporarily, with it set to last until January 26 - when Plan B regulations are scheduled to expire.

Masks are just one of the additional measures being taken for educational settings, with an additional 7,000 air cleaning units also being provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces, the Department for Education said.

It comes after it was previously confirmed that secondary schools will get a break from Ofsted in the first week of term, as they carry out on-site testing.

The watchdog is expected to encourage schools and colleges that are "significantly impacted by Covid-related staff absence" to ask for a deferral to their inspections.

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Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting told LBC the Prime Minister is to blame for lagging compliance with mask-wearing as he welcomed the news to reintroduce them in schools.

He told Andrew Castle that keeping schools open and keeping pupils learning is going to be a "big challenge" this year with the spread of Omicron.

He said: "We need to rapidly accelerate the number of 12 to 15-year-olds who have been vaccinated.

"Secondary pupils should also be testing twice a week - and that's going to be a vital tool in reducing the risk of people carrying the virus in school."

Mr Streeting said he understood why masks being reintroduced in classrooms will frustrate some people, adding he also finds them "irritating" but knows it's "the right thing to do".

"If it's the choice between pupils wearing a mask and being more likely to be able to stay at school and keep learning, then that's the best alternative," he said.

Headteachers have welcomed the updated advice, saying schools and colleges would take it "in their stride".

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "While there are obvious drawbacks to the use of face coverings in classrooms, it is clear that the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education with the potential for further widespread disruption of schools, colleges, and young people.

"It is absolutely essential that everything possible is done to reduce transmission and ensure that children remain in school, and we therefore support the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms for students in year 7 and above.

"Face coverings are already advised in communal areas for pupils in year 7 and above.

"Pupils are accustomed to their use and we are sure the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms is something that schools and colleges will take in their stride."

Mr Barton said his union had been calling for additional air cleaning units "for some time", adding that they should have come "earlier" - but the move was "better late than never".

Read more: 'Robust' contingency plans drawn up as workplaces faces 25% absences due to Omicron

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: "Being in the classroom is undoubtedly the very best place for children and I'm looking forward to welcoming pupils back next week to continue their face-to-face learning, which is so important for their education and wellbeing.

"There is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents challenges, but the entire education sector has responded with a Herculean effort, and for that I thank each and every one of you.

"The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will bolster our support for schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption."