Face masks may be made compulsory in all schools, the Children’s Commissioner said yesterday.
Anne Longfield said she ‘would not rule out’ pupils wearing face masks in the future if it gives people confidence.
Harry Styles’s old school has become the first in the country to depart from government guidance and make face masks mandatory when classes resume.
Holmes Chapel Comprehensive School in Cheshire unilaterally decided that ‘on the balance of probability’ students and staff would be safer wearing coverings.
Navy blue reusable coverings costing three pounds will be viewed as ‘part of the uniform’ and be embroidered with the school’s initials, which were once displayed by the One Direction singer who grew up in the leafy town.
The mandatory use of masks goes beyond the government’s coronavirus guidance, which does not compel them to be worn in schools.
Downing Street today refused to give ground to intense pressure from Labour and union bosses who called for enforced coverings when children go back to lessons next month.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said that in education settings children and staff are mixing with the same people every day, unlike in shops.
But Ms Longfield, who does not have the power to mandate the wearing of masks, told BBC Breakfast: ‘Certainly we know the risk both of children catching the infection and of course transmission for younger children, primary and nursery, is very, very low.
‘It’s still low for secondary school aged children, but there may be some children who may feel more comfortable with a mask on. So I don’t rule it out.
‘I don’t think it’s something that should be a blanket introduction as yet, unless the scientific advice is to do so, but if it means schools stay open and people have confidence I wouldn’t want to rule it out either.’
Holmes Chapel headmaster Nigel Bielby has defended his decision to run ‘contrary’ with official guidelines and compel his school to wear masks.
He told the BBC: ‘I think we’re going contrary to the guidelines because we want to keep a community that’s safe and protect those vulnerable members of our community as far as we possibly can.
‘We felt it was an important step that, on the balance of probability, we were more likely to feel our children and our community was safer using a face covering as opposed to not using a face covering – and of course when the children are not in those lessons and they’re outside they can take that face covering off, so the misunderstanding that the children are in a face covering for six hours a day is incorrect.’
A letter sent to parents said the masks would be manufactured by Sam Dale and Son and cost three pounds.
Schools have been making themselves Covid-secure ahead of the much vaunted reopening after the summer, but the wearing of masks has not been recommended by government.
Mr Gibb said: ‘Within a school, of course, you’re not with people that you don’t meet normally, you see these same children every day, so there are different circumstances – when you’re on public transport for example, when you’re encountering people you’ve not come across or met before.’
Yet the decision has come under attack from both Labour and unions which yesterday ramped up pressure on ministers.
The NASUWT union has called on the Department for Education (DfE) to revise its guidance on face coverings ‘as a matter of urgency’ to help staff return to school in the autumn with ‘confidence’.
It said the Government should encourage school and college staff to wear clear facial visors if there are concerns that teaching and learning may be impeded by the use of face masks.
Patrick Roach, general-secretary of NASUWT, said the position in schools is ‘out of step’ with public health guidance that suggests face masks should be worn when physical distancing cannot be assured.
In a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, Mr Roach said: ‘Strategies for minimising contact between pupils and staff (i.e. ‘bubbles’) are unlikely to be effective given constraints of building design, limitations of space within schools, and the inability of schools to control for wider social interactions involving children and adults within and outside their perimeters.
‘We strongly suggest that your guidance for schools should now be brought into line with changes to the Government’s guidance for other sectors, public transport, shops and supermarkets.’
The GMB union has also called on ministers to allow school staff to wear face masks if they want to when they return in September.
Rehana Azam, GMB national secretary, said: ‘Our members tell us they are scared of what’s to come in September and they feel it’s strange the Government tells them to wear masks on the way to work, and if they go to get lunch, but not when they are in school.’
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is calling for greater clarity on whether schools can permit face masks if pupils or staff want them.
Its general-secretary Geoff Barton said the guidance leaves key questions unanswered.
‘One, how should schools respond if pupils and staff want to wear face coverings?’ he said.
‘Two, do they have the flexibility to introduce the use of face coverings in constricted spaces where there is more mixing, for example in narrow corridors? We are seeking answers from the Government to these questions.’
Government guidance warns the misuse of face coverings may ‘inadvertently increase the risk of transmission’ in schools and there could be ‘negative effects’ on communication and education.
But Holmes Chapel Comprehensive School in Cheshire has made face masks compulsory for staff and students inside school buildings from September.
In a newsletter to parents explaining the decision to introduce face masks as part of the uniform, the school said it was a ‘precautionary additional measure’ to make the school safer.
Dr Sarah Lewis, senior lecturer in genetic epidemiology at the University of Bristol, warned any benefits in terms of transmission of the virus ‘could be offset by anxiety caused by having to wear the masks’.
She said: ‘Some children will not return to school if they are compulsory, as their parents will not send them, and this will impact on their education.
‘Children are unlikely to wear them all day because they will become wet and uncomfortable and the discarded masks may be more of a risk for virus transmission.’
Gavin Williamson vowed to get schools fully open in September yesterday after a poll found most mothers are confident their children will be safe.
The Education Secretary insisted the Government will ‘succeed’ in its pledge to return all pupils to classes thanks to the determination of parents.
He said the return was ‘our national priority’ and warned that not doing so would ‘fail our children’.
Just 3 per cent of mothers are worried that classrooms will be risky, while only 7 per cent are concerned that coronavirus measures will be upsetting for children, a survey for Mumsnet found.
There were also concerns about the impact of the closure of schools between March and July.
More than four in five mothers whose children will sit GCSEs or A-Levels next summer were worried the shutdown may have harmed their results.
It came a week after a survey by the Office for National Statistics found that 88 per cent of parents with school-age children said it was very or fairly likely that they would return in September.
Last night Mr Williamson said: ‘Before the summer holidays over 1.6million pupils were back in our schools, and it is our national priority to get all children back in the classroom in September.
‘Schools are where our children belong – not just for their education, but also for their wellbeing and to be with their fellow pupils and teachers.
‘That is why we are helping schools to prepare for all children to return in a few weeks’ time. Surveys show parents are increasingly confident that is the right thing to do.
‘We will succeed thanks to that same determination to get many pupils back during the last few months and thousands of heads, teachers and school staff across the country are making preparations to welcome the return of all pupils. Because to do any less would be to fail our children.’
The poll showing mothers are confident about the reopening of schools will be a boost for Boris Johnson’s pledge to get every child back for the autumn.
The enthusiasm for lessons to resume was replicated in the findings of a second survey, which found 90 per cent back a full re-opening next month.
Parentkind’s poll for the Sun was striking in that its results in May showed just 10 per cent of parents wanted to send their child back to class.
But Mr Williamson’s vision for all students to be back in lessons next month could be thwarted by union bosses who have warned ministers’ guidance cannot be ‘trusted’.
Dr Mary Bousted, head of the National Education Union, said many schools would struggle to welcome back all their pupils and urged local authorities to step in.
She said the Government would be powerless to overrule councils in the event they took an opposing view.
‘Local authorities and schools should take the confidence to do what they can do and that will mean for many schools that they cannot have all children fully back in September,’ she told a Zoom meeting seen by the Daily Telegraph.
‘Now, the Government’s making threatening noises about that. But in the end, they won’t be able to carry out their threats.’
Ministers are also facing pressure to allow face coverings to be worn in schools by some students.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has said masks for older pupils ‘should be considered’.
Government guidance says face coverings are not required as pupils and staff are mixing in consistent groups.
They also point out that masks are likely to have a huge impact on communication and learning.
Children with hearing problems would find lip-reading impossible.
But the NASUWT teachers’ union wants the Department for Education to revise its guidance ‘as a matter of urgency’ to help staff return with ‘confidence’.
Meanwhile, Business Secretary Alok Sharma admitted ministers were looking at local lockdowns, which could mean schools closing on a ‘case-by-case basis’.
But MPs warned Britain faces ‘economic armageddon’ unless children go back to class.
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘The Government has got to recognise that there is not only one risk in the world called Covid: Economic armageddon is coming down the track.
‘It will result in far more people dying than ever would from Covid and will see the economy going completely flat.
‘Schools are vital to getting the economy going because unless they open, parents can’t get back to work.
‘There’ll be a tsunami of unemployment if we are not careful.
‘Ministers have got to be much clearer: Schools have got to reopen – there must be no backsliding on this.’
The poll of over 1,000 Mumsnet users also found that children who were able to return to school for a period before the summer break found it beneficial.
Some 77 per cent said their child was happy to be back, including 94 per cent of parents of children in reception.
Among parents whose children have not yet returned to school at all, 75 per cent say that supporting home learning has been stressful.
Mumsnet founder and chief executive Justine Roberts said: ‘The final third of this academic year has been astonishingly stressful for students, teachers and parents alike.
‘It’s great to see that parents are largely confident in schools’ plans for coping with these strange new circumstances, and that most children who had some sort of a return to school were happy to go back.
‘It’s clear, though, that parents of pupils who face public exams next summer are wary and anxious about what will happen, given that so much teaching time has been irrevocably lost.’
The survey came after the Children’s Commissioner for England argued schools should be kept open ahead of pubs or shops.
Anne Longfield said children were ‘an afterthought’ during the first lockdown and young people must be ‘at the heart’ of tackling a resurgence of the virus.