Face coverings are already recommended in outdoor communal areas and corridors for pupils in year 7 and above, who are usually aged 11 and above. But in its latest guidance (pdf) issued on Jan. 2, the Department for Education (DfE) recommended that masks should also be worn inside classrooms when the new terms begins after the Christmas break.
An additional 7,000 air cleaning units will also be provided to schools, colleges, and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces, the DfE said.
The recommendation will be temporary, remaining in place until Jan. 26, when the government’s “Plan B” regulations on COVID-19 are scheduled to expire.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said that he looks forward to seeing pupils back to school next week to continue their face-to-face learning, as “being in the classroom is undoubtedly the very best place for children.”
He said “there is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents challenges,” but lauded the education sector for its “Herculean” response.
Zahawi said that both he and Prime Minister Boris Johnson see education as the “number one priority,” and said the new measures will help “minimise disruption.”
The move has been welcomed by the main opposition Labour Party. Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said he would rather have masks worn in classrooms than children out of school.
“If the choice is between having masks at schools or children missing schools in huge numbers, of course we want to keep pupils learning. That’s got to be the priority,” he told Sky News.
But senior Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon said that he fears mask-wearing in schools could damage children’s mental health.
Halfon, who chairs the education select committee in the House of Commons, said the risks from COVID-19 need to be balanced against the risks to children’s wellbeing.
“There is a lot of evidence out there from Belgium, to Canada, to the United States, suggesting that masks on children have a damaging effect, or can have a negative effect on their mental health, their wellbeing, their ability to communicate, their emotional awareness,” he said.
He added: “There is no requirement to wear masks in offices for adults. So why is there a requirement for children in schools, in classrooms, when children are at least risk from COVID? I don’t get it.”
PA contributed to this report.