Scientists urge government to keep face masks in secondary school classrooms beyond mid-May

Leading scientists and unions have told the education secretary they are “extremely concerned” face masks in secondary school classrooms could be scrapped within weeks.

Members of Independent Sage – an independent group of scientists providing Covid advice – are among those who signed an open letter calling for the measure to continue after 17 May, saying to do otherwise would “have consequences for the health” of children, their parents and the wider community.

When schools fully reopened in early March after lockdown pushed much teaching online, new government advice recommended masks in secondary school classrooms to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Last month, education secretary Gavin Williamson extended the advice to run until 17 May – but said he expected to scrap it after that.

More recently, the schools minister Nick Gibb told MPs he hoped face masks in secondary school lessons would end from mid-May, when England is set to ease lockdown measures further, but added this would depend on “the data”.

In an open letter to Mr Williamson this week, Covid Action Group – a network of experts who issue advice on the pandemic – urged the government to leave the current measure in place.

“We are extremely concerned at reports that the government plans to stop requiring children to wear face coverings in secondary school classrooms from 17 May in England,” the letter – signed by scientists and public health experts – said.

“We are not aware of any plans to lift face covering requirements in relation to shops or transport, where people generally spend less time in close contact with large groups.”

The group – which includes Professor Susan Michie, Professor Christina Pagel and Professor Stephen Reicher of Independent Sage – said masks help keep those at school safe, allow for wider restrictions to be safely relaxed as soon as possible and are “a critical part of the overall effort to reduce community transmission”.

The letter – also signed by unions Unite and Unison, as well as the National Education Union (NEU) – said face coverings “minimise educational disruption” by allowing students to keep attending school while protecting their families.

“Millions of children across the globe wear masks in classrooms every day. There are substantial benefits to wearing masks in schools while significant community transmission continues,” the open letter to the education secretary said.

When the measure was introduced earlier this year, officials said it would last until at least Easter pending a review, which extended it until at least the middle of next month.

Deaf children told The Independent the measure had been difficult for them, leaving them struggling to understand what classmates with their mouths covered are saying.

Pupils and teachers who are speaking to, or providing assistance to, someone who relies on lip-reading or facial expression to communicate, are currently exempt from wearing face masks in class.

Covid Action Group’s open letter said clear masks should be provided to schools to help children who struggle with communication while face masks are being worn.

“We urge the government to consider the global and national evidence on current infection rates in schools when making decisions about face coverings in school,” their open letter said. “These should be continued in schools after 17 May, with review prior to the next stage of the roadmap on 21 June.”

It added: “To strip these necessary Covid protections, when there are already too few mitigation measures in schools, and when rates of Covid-19 are still significant would have consequences for the health of our children and their parents as well as their communities.”

Last week, concerns about face coverings disrupting pupils’ learning and wellbeing were raised during the education select committee.

During the education select committee, Tory MP Caroline Johnson said she had heard many stories of children “really suffering” as a result of wearing masks.

“Particularly as we’ve entered hay fever season and the pollen can lodge in the mask as the extra heat contributes to children who have skin conditions like teenage acne,” she added.

Mr Gibb told the committee: “There will be a review leading up to step three of the roadmap and the expectation is that if everything is successful, and the roadmap is going in the direction we expect it to go in, then we hope that face masks won’t be necessary after that date.”

He added: “But of course it depends on the data and the evidence and the advice that we’re getting from Public Health England.”

When pressed on the impact of masks on pupils’ mental health, Mr Gibb said students did not seem to mind wearing face coverings and the profession were “keen to keep” them in place until at least 17 May.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is expected that face coverings will no longer be required in classrooms at step three of the roadmap, which will be no earlier than 17 May.”

They added: “The lifting of further restrictions at step three will follow a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates, and all other school safety measures, including regular asymptomatic testing, will remain in place.”

Additional reporting by PA

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