Children are not legally required to wear face masks in schools and should not be sent home if they refuse to wear one, government officials said last night.
This week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that secondary school pupils will have to wear masks if they cannot maintain social distancing in No10’s ultra-cautious ‘roadmap’ out of England’s third Covid lockdown.
Though masks and regular coronavirus tests are strongly encouraged, officials insisted they are not legal requirements and students should not be ‘denied education’ as a result of non-compliance.
Pupils will also be tested three times at school and once at home for two weeks after schools reopen on March 8, before being asked to test themselves twice a week at home and report the results to their teachers.
But ministers have said both these measures are voluntary, and that students must not be kicked out of the classroom if they refuse to comply.
However, this has not prevented some parents from reacting angrily to the guidance, with ‘hundreds’ gearing up to keep their children at home if children will be forced to cover their faces when they go back to school on March
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told a Downing Street press conference last night: ‘In line with public health guidance, we are also now advising that face coverings should be worn in secondary school classrooms as well as in further and higher education settings unless social distancing can be maintained.
‘Again, this is to help reduce transmission. The risk to children themselves is incredibly low. This is a temporary measure to support the return of schools and will be in place until Easter, when it is reviewed.’
However, Molly Kingsley, the co-founder of UsForThem, said that ‘hundreds’ of parents have contacted the parent campaign group to say they intend to keep their children at home because of the mask mandate.
She told the Telegraph: ‘It’s great that children will be back in school, but it should not be at any price – and certainly not at a price as grave as this.
‘Face masks are an untested intervention and one that many respected academics and doctors have raised serious concerns about from a psychological point of view but also due to the potential physical harm and the long-term effects of face coverings on brain development and educational attainment.’
Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) says ‘no pupil should be denied education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering’.
It also states that the tests are ‘voluntary’, adding: ‘Pupils not undergoing testing should attend school in line with your phased return arrangements.
‘Schools will have discretion on how to test students over that week as they return to the classroom.’
A Government spokesman said it was ‘recommending that secondary school pupils wear face coverings in classrooms as a temporary measure until Easter to provide additional reassurance and protection against the transmission of coronavirus where social distancing measures are not possible’.
Outlining the wearing of masks in schools, the Government’s Spring 2021 Covid-19 response document states: ‘The Government also recommends that the use of face coverings in Higher Education, Further Education and secondary schools is extended for a limited period to all indoor environments – including classrooms – unless 2m social distancing can be maintained.
‘Face coverings are now also recommended in early years and primary schools for staff and adult visitors in situations where social distancing between adults is not possible, for example, when moving around in corridors and communal areas.
‘All children will once again be expected to attend school, as they were in the autumn term.’