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Changes to face coverings guidance

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members

As you will no doubt have seen, late last night, the government updated its guidance on face coverings in secondary schools.

In simple terms, the new guidance states the following:

  • From 1 September 2020, new advice will apply to the use of face coverings by staff and pupils in some schools, and learners in further education

  • In areas of ‘national government intervention’, the government will require adults and pupils to wear face coverings when moving around their school, such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing is difficult to maintain

  • Nationwide, the government is not recommending face coverings are necessary in education settings generally

  • However, secondary schools and colleges will have the discretion to require face coverings in communal areas where they can’t safely manage social distancing (if they believe that it is right in their particular circumstances).

The guidance also includes important information about the safe and effective use of face coverings in schools.

We have been clear with the government that if the scientific evidence advocates the use of face coverings in secondary schools, this is something we would support. However, when it comes to protective measures, what school leaders require is absolute clarity, not discretion.

It is neither helpful nor fair to ask school leaders to make individual decisions about face coverings in their school. Such decisions should rest with public health officials who have access to the full range of scientific evidence.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) now advises that “children aged 12 and older should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular, when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.”

With that in mind, the government should have been decisive in its announcement. Once again, many school leaders will feel as though the government has passed the buck and handed the difficult decision over to them. We will continue to lobby the government to take a clear and unambiguous line on this.

We will also be seeking answers to the range of questions this new policy position raises, including what this means for staff working in primary schools and how it will apply in special schools. Our understanding is that we may also see the government take a more permissive approach to staff using face coverings in primary schools, particularly when they are interacting with other adults. We have been clear that if this is to be the case, that guidance needs to be issued quickly and clearly.

In the meantime, NAHT’s advice is that it would be prudent for secondary schools to ask pupils and staff to wear face coverings in corridor and communal spaces unless there is a compelling reason not to. Erring on the side of caution would seem a sensible approach to take given the information coming out of the WHO. We will be updating our FAQ on face coverings to reflect this new guidance later today.

Throughout this crisis, the government has singularly failed to provide school leaders with the timely and relevant advice that we have so desperately needed. Time and time again, school leaders have delivered what has been asked of them despite, and not because of, the advice coming from the government.

In March, school leaders organised the closure and reopening of their schools virtually overnight despite a chaotic approach from the Department for Education. They kept vulnerable pupils fed despite a disastrous national voucher scheme, delivered remote learning without any real support from the government and ensured pupils received accurate grades in the face of the recent grading fiasco.

Our recent survey of members suggests that virtually all school will be opening at the start of term and the very small minority that can’t will be open within a matter of weeks. School leaders have worked their way through the government’s guidance to create schools that are as safe as possible. They have done everything asked of them and much, much more.

The current data suggests that most pupils will be returning to school at the start of this term. If this does occur as expected, I do not doubt that it will be down to the tireless work of our members and their teams.

As we move into the new term, it is about time that all politicians and public figures unite behind the needs of schools and pupils. This is not the time for eye-catching headlines or cheap political point-scoring.

You and your pupils deserve better.

First published 26 August 2020