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Facemasks in class will not be mandatory due to pupil anxiety, minister says

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Secondary school students will not be forced to wear face coverings in classrooms, as some will be “anxious and nervous” about wearing them, an education minister has said.

As millions of pupils in England begin to return to class after months of remote learning, children’s minister Vicky Ford said secondary school pupils should be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks.

But the Government has decided against making their use mandatory due to pupil anxiety, Ms Ford said.

The Department for Education (DfE) is advising secondary school and college students to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in the classroom.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is providing members with a template letter that they can use in response to letters some schools have received objecting to the use of face coverings.

The letter says a school’s risk assessment could be undermined, health and safety problems created and there could be insurance ramifications if a high percentage of students choose not to wear face masks.

Asked whether schools where there is not much mask-wearing should close, Ms Ford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “No, I think that we should strongly encourage them to wear the masks, I think the vast majority of young people, they get this.

“But there will be some who will be very anxious and nervous about doing so and that’s why we understand that and that is why we have not made it mandatory but we have strongly encouraged this.”

All children are able to return to class from Monday under the first step to ease restrictions, but secondary schools can stagger the return of students over the week to allow for mass testing.

Secondary school pupils are being asked to take three voluntary Covid-19 tests on site and one at home over the first fortnight. They will then be sent home-testing kits to use twice-weekly.

Ms Ford said a child who tests positive for coronavirus with a lateral flow test but subsequently receives a negative PCR result should not return to school.

“They should not take the risk, we all want to make sure we can keep Covid out of the classrooms here,” she added.

Primary school children are not being asked to carry out Covid-19 tests or wear face coverings.

Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, has previously warned that ministers risk creating “mask anarchy” unless regulations on face coverings in schools were made clearer.

Last week Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, told MPs that it would be “much easier” if Government guidance on face coverings was “black and white” as he said headteachers could “do without” disputes about face masks.

Pupils in England, except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, have been learning remotely since the start of the lockdown in January.

An Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) survey suggests that nine in 10 parents would send their child back to school this week even if it was optional.

The Government has introduced asymptomatic coronavirus tests for secondary school and college pupils, as well as tougher measures around facemasks, ahead of the full reopening.

But school leaders have been struggling to get parents’ permission for the voluntary tests, and some are concerned that pupils will refuse to wear face coverings in classrooms as they are not mandatory.

A recent poll by ASCL found that more than half of heads have faced difficulties in securing parental consent for pupils to take part in rapid tests.

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