Ministers today batted away calls for face coverings to be worn in schools when they reopen next month.
Unions have urged the government to reconsider guidance that face covering are not required as staff and pupils are meeting in regular groups.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth waded into the row by saying the rule ‘should be considered’ for older students.
But schools minister Nick Gibb said the guidance for England stands, insisting that the situation is very different than in shops – where anyone aged 11 or over must wear a mask.
Mr Gibb told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘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.’
Schools minister Nick Gibb (pictured today) said the guidance stands, insisting that the situation is very different than in shops – where anyone aged 11 or over must wear a mask
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.’
The government has pledged that schools will reopen fully in England from September