The Prime Minister announced last week that pupils in England no longer need to wear face coverings in lessons, with the rule set to extend to school communal areas on Thursday (27 January).
Mr Johnson has hit out at schools that are choosing to ignore the latest rule change, saying it is essential that children have access to face-to-face education.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said “children have been one of the hardest hit as a result of the disruption throughout the pandemic”, and Mr Johnson “believes it is vital that children are receiving face-to-face education and can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom”.
He added: “The Prime Minister also thinks that the schools should follow the latest guidance.
“We’ve been clear that we removed the requirement for face masks to be worn in classrooms and we will remove advice for face masks to be worn in communal areas from January 27.”
The Prime Minister’s comments come after the Education Secretary sent a letter to MPs last week stating he will personally vet any plans to bring back masks in schools in areas hit by Covid spikes.
Nadhim Zahawi said he has agreed with directors of public health that, in the event of “extraordinary outbreaks” of Covid in local areas, they will consult him before recommending that pupils wear face coverings again.
He said in the letter: “I also want to be clear that, given my evidence-led approach, I will continue to work collaboratively with the UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) and local directors of public health to ensure the right response to local outbreaks.
“I met with directors of public health yesterday and we agreed that in the event of extraordinary outbreaks of Covid in localised areas, they will share their plans with me where they are recommending reintroducing face coverings in tightly-focused geographical zones, so that we can assess evidence and data to ensure any extra measures are proportionate.”
Schools resisting the rule changes
Headteachers across England are already resisting the rule changes, with more than 100 schools writing to parents to say pupils must continue wearing face coverings in classrooms, the Daily Telegraph reported.
The move has also proved controversial among education unions who warned that removing masks is “premature”, and the situation in schools remains “extremely challenging” due to high levels of staff and pupil absences.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “Schools and colleges who take the decision to keep face coverings as a requirement in classrooms will have… done so following a risk assessment, and with the head using his or her professional judgment and knowledge about what’s best for the school to protect face-to-face education.
“This is a sensible precaution, particularly given we are now in the run-up to national examinations and the issues to education caused by staff and pupil absences.
“That Whitehall would seek to micromanage such decisions seems utterly unnecessary, if not bizarre.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), agreed that the situation in schools is still “extremely challenging” due to significant Covid-related absences.
He also criticised the government for announcing face masks would no longer be needed in classrooms on Wednesday (19 January), with the change taking effect the following day, giving schools little time to prepare.
He said: “The government’s own guidance says that directors of public health may advise that face masks are needed in classrooms in response to local circumstances.
“But schools are unlikely to have had any time in which to consult them, or in which to communicate the changes with parents and staff.
“It is therefore not surprising if some schools have continued to use face masks for the time being while they resolve these issues.”
Mr Zahawi has insisted that face-to-face education for all students has consistently been a priority, which is why mandatory face coverings have been removed from classrooms, with communal areas to follow this week.
He said: “Face-to-face education for all students has consistently been my priority, and that is why I am removing face coverings from classrooms – as promised – on the earliest possible date, making sure there is as little disruption to students’ learning as possible and children can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom.
“National guidance to wear face coverings in communal areas will also be removed in line with the national move out of plan B. This applies to all schools – and if required local teams from DfE would work with individual schools to support them in implementing the guidance.
“As we transition from pandemic to endemic, my message remains the same as ever – testing and vaccinations are our best weapons against the virus – keep testing, and get your vaccination as soon as possible.”
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