Unions seize on 11th hour demands that Boris Johnson introduces facemasks in schools

Teaching unions have seized on 11th-hour demands for Boris Johnson to force pupils and staff to wear face masks in schools after Nicola Sturgeon said she is preparing to make them compulsory in Scotland. 

The Scottish First Minister said yesterday she was finalising plans which will see secondary school students told to wear face coverings when travelling between classes and while in communal areas. 

The move was confirmed this morning by Scotland’a Education Secretary John Swinney who said secondary schools will be given ‘obligatory guidance’ that pupils should wear face coverings when outside the classroom from next Monday.       

Downing Street has said it has no plans to review the guidance in England which states that masks are not necessary in schools if other hygiene rules are adhered to.  

Business Secretary Alok Sharma dug in this morning as he said the ‘chances of being infected in school are incredibly low’ and that the risk of catching coronavirus is actually ‘higher outside a school setting’. 

However, the Association of School and College Leaders has demanded Mr Johnson change tack and follow Ms Sturgeon’s lead on the issue, putting unions on a collision course with the Government ahead of English schools reopening next week. 

The Government is desperately trying to persuade parents to send their children back to school amid lingering safety fears and the face masks issue risks undermining the efforts of ministers. 

There is now growing speculation that Ms Sturgeon’s decision to act first on face masks in schools will ultimately force Number 10 to change its approach. 

It would not be the first time that the SNP leader has humiliated Mr Johnson during the pandemic. 

She has repeatedly gazumped the PM throughout the crisis, taking action before the UK Government on things including announcing a ban on large social gatherings, closing schools and saying that the original three week lockdown would be extended.     

Ms Sturgeon at the Scottish Parliament on August 20

Boris Johnson says face masks are not necessary in schools, but Nicola Sturgeon has signalled secondary school pupils in Scotland will be asked to wear them when travelling between classes 

Business Secretary Alok Sharma today said there are 'no current plans to review the guidance on face coverings in schools'

Business Secretary Alok Sharma today said there are ‘no current plans to review the guidance on face coverings in schools’

Unions tell ministers head teachers will not fine parents who keep children at home

Headteachers won’t fine parents who decide to keep their children home from school next week, unions have signalled to Downing Street.

Number 10 insisted compulsory fines should be used as a ‘last resort’ to force parents into bringing their children into the classroom when schools reopen.

But unions, who have opposed the return to the classroom because of the danger coronavirus poses to teachers, told The Telegraph fines were ‘counterproductive’.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Talking about fines now is unhelpful. Members cannot say don’t use them but they are more motivated by co-operation rather than coercion.’ 

Nick Gibbs, the schools minister, said strict attendance was ‘not optional’ but parents could raise any concerns they might have directly with schools. 

Headteachers have the power to impose fines of £120 per parent, which is halved if paid within 21 days.

If the fine goes unpaid and the case makes it to court some parents could be left with a £2,500 fine and a three-month prison sentence. 

Fines are usually brought in after five days of non-attendance.  

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NAS/UWT, the second biggest teaching union, said schools needed to work with parents ‘constructively’.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and children’s charity Unicef issued guidance at the weekend that children aged 12 and over should wear face coverings like adults, particularly if they cannot stay six feet apart from others. 

Ms Sturgeon immediately launched a review of their use in Scottish schools, and said they would probably have to be worn in areas such as ‘corridors and communal areas’.

In response, the Association of School and College Leaders called on Mr Johnson to conduct his own review, in a move that will frustrate the Government as it tries to persuade pupils and parents to overcome their concerns about safety.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, told The Telegraph: ‘We would expect the Government in Westminster to review its guidance on the use of face coverings in schools, which currently says they are not required, in light of the WHO guidance and the consultation that is taking place in Scotland.

‘The evidence is clearly evolving on this issue and it is important that it is kept under review and that clear direction is provided to schools.’

Mr Johnson has said it is ‘vital’ for pupils to go back to school next week, with the PM insisting that the risk of children catching the disease is ‘very, very, very small’ and the risk of them suffering badly from it is ‘very, very, very, very, very small indeed’.   

Mr Sharma today signalled the UK Government is intending to stand firm on the masks issue as he said the advice had been ‘consistent’ for months.    

He told LBC Radio: ‘Public Health England does not recommend face coverings in school and the reason for this is because pupils and staff are mixing in consistent groups and we have provided additional guidance, together with Public Health England, in terms of how you can keep schools safe.

‘As I said, there are no current plans to review the guidance on face coverings in schools.’

He later told Sky news that ‘there is no current plan to review that particular guidance’ as he rejected suggestions that the Government could simply make wearing masks in schools voluntary. 

Gavin Williamson promises all schools will get stock of Covid home tests ahead of next week’s reopening 

Under-fire Gavin Williamson today broke cover to guarantee every school in England will be supplied with coronavirus home tests to hand out to parents when they reopen next week.

The Education Secretary used an interview to pledge that teachers would be able to send ill children home with a kit so that a family member can use it to quickly determine whether they have Covid-19.

Staff will also be allowed to use the swab kits under guidance that says they should be handed out by teachers ‘where they think providing one will significantly increase the likelihood of them (the ill person) getting tested.’

Under guidance issued by the Department for Education, if the child tests negative either using a home kit or after visiting a testing centre they can return to school with the minimum of disruption.

If they test positive they quarantine at home while the school takes steps to limit the spread.

But many have questioned whether every school getting Covid-19 home testing kits before September is an achievable feat in the first place – with sceptical parents vowing to hold the Education Secretary to his word.

General Secretary of the Teachers’ Union Dr Patrick Roach said: ‘We wait with interest to see more detail about the Education Secretary’s promise of home testing kits for use by schools.

‘It is important that this latest announcement from Ministers delivers on substance and that there is an adequate supply of testing kits to help keep schools safe not just on the first day back at school but throughout the term and beyond.’

The Business Secretary also claimed pupils are actually at lower risk of catching coronavirus in school than they are outside school.  

He said: ‘I think you have to look also at the science of this and you will have seen the messaging that has come from the chief medical officers, the deputy chief medical officers, saying very clearly that the chances of being infected from Covid in a school is very, very small.

‘If you look at the statistics from Public Health England, in June we had on average around one million children in pre-school and primary settings and there were 70 incidents of infection.

‘The chances of being infected in school are incredibly low. In fact the chances of being infected are higher outside a school setting so we have to go on the basis of the scientific and medical advice that we get and that is very clear at this stage which is that there is not a recommendation for wearing face coverings in schools.’ 

However, the Government is under growing pressure to change its approach after a YouGov survey found a majority of people  – 52 per cent – believe secondary school children should wear masks.   

On widening the use of masks in English schools, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said yesterday: ‘We are not in a position where we are suggesting that, because we believe there is a system of controls that are there in place for all schools for children to be able to return safely and for staff to be able to operate safely within those schools.’

Some experts have questioned the wisdom of asking children to wear masks amid fears it could actually spread the virus.  

Professor Russel Viner, the president of the Royal College of Pediatricians and a member of the government’s SAGE advisory committee, told Radio 4: ‘There are a lot of concerns for mask wearing for children, particularly younger children. 

‘They touch their face because they are constantly worried about the mask, so it could potentially spread the virus more. 

‘There is very little evidence for the use of masks in schools.’  

Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said yesterday the evidence on whether children over 12 should wear masks in schools was ‘not strong’.   

The WHO says children aged 12 and over ‘should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular where they cannot guarantee at least a one metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area’.

But the Department for Education has said head teachers must not force pupils or staff to wear them.

Its guidance states the benefits from wearing masks on public transport or in shops do not apply to the school environment, and misuse could increase the risk of transmissions. 

And there are also worries about the impact of masks on teaching and communication, especially for children with learning difficulties.

Instead, ‘changing habits, cleaning and hygiene are effective measure for controlling the spread of the virus’, according to the guidance.

Exceptions are where children require intimate care, or if they become unwell with coronavirus symptoms and teachers are unable to maintain a two-metre distance.

Pupils wear face masks at a school in Belfast yesterday after returning to school for the first time since March

Pupils wear face masks at a school in Belfast yesterday after returning to school for the first time since March 

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries says pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus than catch Covid 

Pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus on their way to school than catch coronavirus in the classroom, the deputy chief medical officer claimed yesterday.

Dr Jenny Harries said the risk of children being involved in a traffic accident or of catching the flu are ‘probably higher than the current risk’ posed by the deadly virus.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Nick Gibb this morning insisted parents will be fined if they refuse to send their children back to school next week.

He also said the Government is sticking by its advice to teachers that they do not need to wear masks despite a growing row with unions over staff safety.

Public Health England data has shown that teachers are more likely to be infected than their pupils, after one in 23,000 students tested positive during the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays.

 

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: ‘If a school puts in place the measures that are in the guidance that we issued in early July… then masks are not necessary for staff or pupils.’

The Department for Education said: ‘We have consistently followed Public Health England advice, which does not recommend the use of face coverings in schools because there are a range of protective measures in place, including children staying in consistent groups.

‘We have set out the system of controls schools should use, including cleaning and hygiene measures, to substantially reduce the risk of transmission of the virus when they open to all children in the coming weeks.’ 

An under-fire Mr Williamson yesterday broke cover to guarantee every school in England will be supplied with coronavirus home tests to hand out to parents when they reopen next week.

The Education Secretary used an interview to pledge that teachers would be able to send ill children home with a kit so that a family member can use it to quickly determine whether they have Covid-19.

Staff will also be allowed to use the swab kits under guidance that says they should be handed out by teachers ‘where they think providing one will significantly increase the likelihood of them (the ill person) getting tested.’

Under guidance issued by the Department for Education, if the child tests negative either using a home kit or after visiting a testing centre they can return to school with the minimum of disruption.

If they test positive they must quarantine at home while the school takes steps to limit the spread.

But many have questioned whether every school getting Covid-19 home testing kits before September is an achievable feat in the first place – with sceptical parents vowing to hold the Education Secretary to his word.

General Secretary of the Teachers’ Union Dr Patrick Roach said: ‘We wait with interest to see more detail about the Education Secretary’s promise of home testing kits for use by schools.

‘It is important that this latest announcement from Ministers delivers on substance and that there is an adequate supply of testing kits to help keep schools safe not just on the first day back at school but throughout the term and beyond.’

Ministers have said that it will be compulsory for pupils to attend classes, with the risk of fines for parents who did not comply – although Mr Williamson said they would only be used as a last resort.

Local authorities can fine parents £120 – cut to £60 if paid within 21 days – over a child’s absence from school, with the threat of prosecution if they fail to pay.

Mr Williamson said: ‘In terms of fining, we would ask all schools to work with those parents, encourage them to bring their children back, deal with concerns that they have and fining would be very much the last resort, as it has always been.’

Public Health England data showed the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays resulted in just one in 23,000 children catching coronavirus.

Some 70 children tested positive out of more than 1.6 million who were in class, with many confirmed as having the disease actually being asymptomatic.

But some 128 staff members tested positive, with most transmission believed to have taken place between adults.

Public Health England data has shown that teachers are more likely to be infected than their pupils, after one in 23,000 students tested positive during the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays.

Yesterday, 17 staff and two pupils have tested positive for coronavirus at a school in Dundee just two weeks after schools in Scotland reopened following lockdown.  

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