Secondary school children and college students should continue wearing masks in classrooms and communal areas after the Easter break, education secretary Gavin Williamson has announced.
Only when England moves to the third stage of lifting lockdown, on May 17 at the earliest, will face coverings no longer be required in either setting.
The announcement comes after a review of face coverings in schools and colleges.
Their continued use in classrooms has been recommended as a “precautionary measure” to limit the risk of coronavirus transmission and allow the government to continue monitoring the effect of school and college returns.
Any changes to the schedule will be confirmed with a week’s notice.
All other safety measures will remain in place, including twice-weekly testing, increased hygiene, ventilation and social distancing, where possible.
Williamson said: “The return to school and college from March 8 has been an incredible success and I would like to thank staff, parents and pupils for their compliance with the guidance on reducing transmission of the virus.
“Our latest data also showed that attendance in school remains higher than at any point during the autumn term.
“On top of the protective measures previously in place such as regular handwashing and ventilation, we introduced face coverings in the classroom for secondary schools and colleges to help reduce transmission in parallel with the introduction of twice weekly testing.
“Schools and students have done a great job adapting to Covid secure guidance and working hard to make sure it doesn’t impact learning.
“We obviously all want to get back to face mask-free classrooms and we will do this in line with the latest scientific data while balancing the interests of students, teachers and the wider community.”
Those who are currently exempt from wearing face coverings will remain so, including pupils or staff who are speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate.
Professor John Simpson, head of public health advice at Public Health England, said: “The return to school after Easter will allow us to continue monitoring the impacts of measures to reduce the spread of Covid, as we encourage families to test regularly.
“Wearing face coverings in secondary schools is an extra control measure to reduce the risk of transmission to support children continuing their education in the classroom.”
Unison, the UK’s largest trade union, welcomed the decision.
Its head of education Jon Richards said: “Ministers have sensibly listened to school staff – the people who know what it’s really like to be around classrooms and corridors during the pandemic.
“Wearing face coverings isn’t ideal, but they’re a valuable safety measure and will be needed for a while longer to allow schools to stay open.
“Keeping staff, pupils and their families safe and stopping wider infection spread is the most important thing.
“Any further decisions must be made according to the infection data, rather than dates.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that masks would continue to be worn in communal areas when students were moving around schools.
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