The Government last week announced the end of Plan B restrictions, including the immediate ending of mask wearing in classrooms – and, from next Thursday, January 27, the end of the requirement to wear face coverings in any part of school buildings.
Boris Johnson told schools in England on Friday to end the wearing of face masks by pupils, in face of headteachers’ concerns and plans by the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to liaise with public health officials over masks during local outbreaks.
But concerns remain among school leaders as the North East continues to experience some of the highest covid rates in the country, with a prevalence rate in South Tyneside of 1,627.7 cases per 100,000 people.
The rate for secondary school age pupils is even higher with 3,514.1 cases per 100,000 people aged 10 to 14 at the time of writing.
Infection rates have caused massive staffing pressures for schools and just last week South Tyneside Council confirmed some schools were having to send some children home due to a shortage of teaching and supply staff.
Councillor Adam Ellison, Lead Member for Children, Young People and Families, said in a statement: “Although the Department for Education has announced that face coverings are now no longer required in classrooms or in communal areas from next Thursday, schools may still want to consider recommending face coverings as a voluntary measure based on a review of their own risk assessments of what to do in busy or enclosed spaces.
"Schools will continue to follow guidance on testing, self-isolating with symptoms, hand washing and ventilation to keep everyone safe and protected.”
With no further details on the arrival on South Tyneside of any of the 7,000 air purifiers purchased by the Government to be distributed to schools, Cllr Ellison added: “All schools have completed a risk assessment which highlights the need for good ventilation.
"CO2 monitors have been provided to all state-funded education settings which enable staff to quickly identify where ventilation needs to be improved and schools are encouraged to open doors or windows in poorly ventilated areas.
"This is more effective than using an air cleaning and filtration unit.”
The blessing for headteachers to use their own discretion comes just a day after a survey report was published by Schools North East - a collaborative school led network established in 2007 by the region’s then headteachers – expressing concerns over the removal of restrictions and wearing of masks in schools.
The survey, which was conducted in schools across the region’s 12 Local Authorities, showed almost three quarters of schools reported staff levels below 90% and in almost a quarter of schools, staff levels were below 80%.
Worried about the situation being worsened by the ending of Plan B, over two thirds of schools which responded to the survey said they opposed the easing of restrictions in schools with over 80% of headteachers saying they would be keeping some Covid related measures in place, including the wearing of face masks.
Chris Zarraga, Director of Schools North East, said: ‘The easing of restrictions follows declining Covid cases and high levels of vaccine uptake, however schools are still facing real challenges in getting staff cover, increasing staff workload and stress and impacting negatively on wellbeing.
"There are serious concerns for schools with local pictures often radically different from the national picture.
‘Schools are having to take difficult decisions to reduce disruption to ensure schools remain operational for all students. Schools have proven to be national strategic infrastructure during the pandemic, and it is vital that the Government properly protects schools from outbreaks.
"The Government must support headteachers to put in place those measures necessary for their own school’s context.”
The decision to remove restrictions, including face masks, while Covid rates remain high has also raised concerns with the country’s largest teaching union, the NASUWT.
NASUWT North East National Executive John Hall said: “Our stance is that new risk assessments, including the wearing of face masks should remain in place until an agreement is reached with the school.
"Our priority is for schools to remain open if safe to do so but easing restrictions now, when rates in the region are still very high, could lead to more staff absences and more pressure on schools.
"We need to have a cautious approach, including continuing with the wearing of masks. We have lost all confidence and trust in the Government and are relying on employers – the schools and local authorities – to consult with employees at a local level.”
However the Government has defended its decision to ease restrictions and remove the requirement for face masks in schools.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “Face-to-face education for all students has consistently been my priority, and that is why I am removing face coverings from classrooms – as promised – on the earliest possible date, making sure there is as little disruption to students’ learning as possible and children can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom.
“National guidance to wear face coverings in communal areas will also be removed in line with the national move out of Plan B. This applies to all schools – and if required local teams from DfE would work with individual schools to support them in implementing the guidance.
“As we transition from pandemic to endemic, my message remains the same as ever – testing and vaccinations are our best weapons against the virus – keep testing, and get your vaccination as soon as possible.”