Do pupils still have to wear masks in school? Rules on wearing face coverings explained as lockdown eases

Critics have said the government is in a rush to remove face coverings in schools as England enters Step 3 of the roadmap

The government has announced from May 17 that the requirement for children to wear face coverings in schools will be dropped.

Face masks were brought in as a precautionary measure in schools back in March as the roadmap eased - but ministers have since said they are no longer required.

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However some areas in the north of England are still being advised to continue asking pupils to wear face coverings due to rising numbers of cases of the Indian variant.

Face coverings were introduced when schools returned earlier this year (Getty Images)
Face coverings were introduced when schools returned earlier this year (Getty Images)

Here’s what you need to know.

How will face mask rules change on May 17?

The Prime Minister confirmed that face masks will no longer be required in secondary schools in England from May 17.

Mr Johnson said: “We will no longer require face coverings in classrooms, or for students in communal areas, in secondary schools and colleges."

Since schools returned in March, pupils have been required to wear them in classrooms and communal areas.

All other protective measures – such as ventilation and social distancing where possible – will remain in schools, and regular rapid testing will continue to help find asymptomatic cases when they do occur.

Staff are not required to wear face coverings in the classroom, but they should continue to wear them in communal areas, such as the staff room, where social distancing may not be possible.

Scotland

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has not yet announced when her government will end mandatory wearing of masks in schools, despite pressure from campaign group UsForThemScotland.

Wales

No date has been given in Wales for when pupils can stop wearing face masks in class.

First Minister Mark Drakeford told WalesOnline on May 14 the country might - by the autumn - be able to have young people returning to schools with a vaccine available to them and mask wearing might be eased.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland post-primary pupils currently have to wear face masks in the classroom and on public transport as ministers outlined in a letter that they are a requirement.

What concerns have been raised around wearing face coverings at school?

MPs and parents have raised concerns about face coverings in class disrupting pupils’ learning and wellbeing .

It is hoped the removal of face coverings – which has been taken amid declining infection rates – will improve interaction between teachers and students, and ensure the clearest possible communication to support learning.

But union leaders and scientists have called for them to remain in classrooms beyond May 17 to ensure pupils, staff, parents and the community are not put at risk of infection.

What have the critics said?

Five unions representing teachers and support staff, as well as scientists and parents, wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson urging him to keep masks in place until at least June 21.

Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, told the PA news agency that it would be “unwise” to remove masks from classrooms at a time when Covid infections remain in schools and not everyone has received a vaccine.

Meanwhile, school leaders unions’ called on ministers to set out the evidence behind any relaxation of rules to address concerns about infection risk.

Mr Johnson also announced that schools will be able “to organise trips with overnight stays”, but the Department for Education (DfE) is recommending that schools and colleges do not plan for international visits to take place before the start of the next academic year.

On face coverings, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), accused Mr Johnson of ignoring scientific advice as he warned “we are not out of the woods yet”.

He said: “Face masks help with suppressing transmission of the virus and therefore help to minimise the disruption caused when pupils or staff have to self-isolate.

“Schools and colleges are doing a very good job of keeping students and staff safe and they should be permitted to retain mask wearing in the classroom if they think it necessary for reasons such as a rise in local infection rates. This would be an entirely reasonable and responsible decision.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is obviously better for communication and learning if masks aren’t required in classrooms, but any decision to this effect must follow the scientific advice, and it is very worrying that the government’s decision appears to contradict the published evidence.

“This is particularly troublesome in light of the fact that a Covid strain first detected in India has recently been declared a ‘variant of concern’ by Public Health England as this would suggest the need for greater caution.

“For the sake of a few more weeks all this unnecessary anxiety could have been avoided and we don’t understand why the government is in such a rush over this issue.”

Do children in Greater Manchester have to wear face coverings at school?

Local authorities in the north have asked secondary schools and colleges to keep face coverings in place until further notice.

Cases of the Indian variant have been detected in Bolton, Greater Manchester, as well as in Blackburn, Lancashire and Sefton in Merseyside, which have all seen rates rise rapidly.

The directors of public health from Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council are advising schools and colleges across the county to keep face masks in place until June 21.

The new strain, known as B.1.617.2, is proving to be highly transmissible and is thought to be one of the main reasons there has been a spike in cases in Bolton.

Additional reporting by PA.