Guidance on recommended mask use in schools with high COVID infection rates has been changed by the government.
Until recently, areas with high rates were categorised as enhanced response areas (ERA) by central government, following a request from local health bosses.
This would mean that schools could then introduce measures – including the use of face coverings in communal areas – in an attempt to tackle the spread of coronavirus.
However, updated guidance now allows local directors of public health to make those decisions – without going through the process of seeking permission from the government.
The use of masks still does not apply to children of primary school age or pupils in early years, but secondary school pupils would be asked to wear coverings in school corridors and other communal areas.
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Masks may also be recommended inside the classroom by the director or public health to combat outbreaks both in schools and in the wider local area, the government guidance states.
Community centres and other facilities used by schools may also be affected by the increased measures, while efforts to increase lateral flow testing and vaccinations must also be implemented.
Measures are then reviewed weekly, under the government guidance.
The measures come as recent figures show that the number of children out of school for COVID related reasons in England fell compared to before the October half-term.
The Department for Education (DfE) estimates that 1.6% of all pupils, around 130,000 children, were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on 11 November.
This was down from around 248,000 children, or 3.2% of all pupils, on 21 October, the week before many schools went on half-term.
Nevertheless, school leaders’ unions are still urging the government to take more action to ensure that the data is not “merely a blip” before COVID cases start to rise again.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is a relief to finally see positive progress on school attendance after months of severe disruption to education caused by the coronavirus, but the latest figures indicate we are not out of the woods yet and that the government has more work to do.
“The natural circuit breaker afforded by the half-term holiday seems to have had a positive effect on infection rates among both students and school staff, whilst the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds is also playing its part.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said that “improved mitigation measures” were need to “avoid history repeating itself”.
She added: “Several local authorities have recently moved to new arrangements, including social distancing measures, avoidance of large gatherings and the reintroduction of face coverings in secondary schools.”
“These are sensible approaches which can help keep transmission down.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “We are committed to protecting education, which is why the safety measures in place strike a balance between managing transmission risk with regular testing and enhanced ventilation and hygiene, and reducing disruption to face-to-face learning.”
Data released this week showed that more than one million 12 to 15-year-olds in England have been vaccinated against COVID.
The UK recorded 37,243 new cases of COVID on Wednesday, while the number of deaths reported within 28 days of a positive test rose by 214.
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