Secondary school pupils will be asked to wear masks in lessons when they return next week – with a review scheduled for January 26 following fears the Omicron variant of Covid will lead to a million children infected
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Pupils in England will be wearing masks in class this week as the Government yesterday launched a last-ditch bid to prevent Omicron chaos crippling schools.
Secondary pupils will be asked, not ordered, to wear face coverings in lessons, as scientists warn more than a million children could be infected by the new Covid variant.
Education officials say the “short-term” recommendation will be reviewed on January 26, but could be extended.
The Government also says it is buying around 7,000 air-cleaning units for classrooms “where quick fixes to improve ventilation are not possible, such as being able to open a window”.
But with almost 25,000 schools in England, the vast majority will miss out on the devices.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Finally, the Government have been forced to recognise, and react to, the scale of the Omicron variant and its potential impact on education. The recommendation on wearing face masks in secondary school classrooms is overdue – but it should be a requirement.”
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She added that the number of air-cleaning units would be “completely inadequate for what should be a basic human right, the provision of clean air in every classroom”.
Dr Bousted went on: “The fact the Government has provided the extra purifiers shows it recognises the problem but with over 300,000 classrooms in England they have failed to provide an effective solution.”
It comes as schools are expected to be crippled by teacher absences while Omicron sweeps the UK.
The Department of Education is scaling back Ofsted inspections as a result. There will be no secondary inspections this week and schools significantly impacted by staff sickness can ask for postponements of visits scheduled beyond that.
But teaching unions say more infection control measures are needed to ensure the worst-hit schools can stay open.
Dr Bousted’s colleague, Kevin Courtney, fears a move to persuade retired teachers to cover classes will fail if they cannot be convinced they will be safe.
The joint chief of the NEU added: “Another mitigation would be asking the brothers and sisters of children who test positive to stay home till they have a negative test.
“That might also help to persuade some retired staff to come back.
“There is a question for a retired person about the level of risk they are prepared to take on, even though they are vaccinated.
“Last term, teachers and other education staff were more likely to test positive than other working people.
“That led to a lot of disruption with teachers having to be off. There was also a shortage of supply staff.
“In some cases, that led to schools finding it very difficult and having to send some year groups home in the last weeks of term. We want to avoid that disruption.”
Professor Christina Pagel, a researcher at University College London, said the situation is “going to be really bad” because of the sheer number of people currently infected.
Prof Pagel warned: “Once community infection rates are high, infections get into schools and transmit really quickly. That’s exactly what happened with Delta last term, where over a million five to 14-year-olds were confirmed with an infection. Omicron is more transmissible, and we know previous infection does not protect you from Omicron.”
Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson said the Government should make jabbing 12 to 15-year-olds an urgent priority and urged ministers to “get a grip”, on the outbreak.
Ms Phillipson added of the Government: “Again, they’ve failed to use the holiday to get on top of the virus.”
Amid the barrage of criticism, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “The classroom is undoubtedly the very best place for children.”
Mr Zahawi added: “I’m looking forward to welcoming pupils back 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.
“The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority.
“These measures bolster support for schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption.”