Education unions have called for the government to extend new guidance on face coverings in secondary schools to include the classroom.
At the weekend the Department for Education said secondary school and college pupils will have to wear face coverings in communal areas from Monday as part of attempts to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.
The measure, which applies to students in Year 7 and above, also covers staff and visitors unless they are exempt, the DfE said.
It comes after the government announced that masks will have to be worn in shops and on public transport from Tuesday to tackle the Omicron variant of coronavirus, which is feared to spread rapidly and may evade existing vaccines to a degree.
Several cases of the variant, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has described as 'extremely concerning', have already been detected in the UK.
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Education unions welcomed the reintroduction of mask-wearing in schools, but said the DfE should go further, calling for it to be extended to classrooms.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “We welcome the DfE guidance that masks must be worn by adults and children in Year 7 and above in communal areas.
“We think the DfE should go further and encourage mask-wearing in secondary classrooms and also plan investment to improve ventilation and air filtration.
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“These steps can all help reduce the spread of COVID and thereby reduce disruption to education.
“Omicron makes the threat of disruption of education all the clearer: any close contacts of an Omicron case, staff or pupils, will have to self-isolate for 10 days, whether vaccinated or not.
“Such steps are all the more important because vaccination has not yet been offered to even a majority of secondary children.”
Unison assistant general secretary Jon Richards said: “Swift action is needed to help contain the spread in schools and avoid further disrupted learning.
“Face coverings mustn’t be limited to communal areas. If they’re to have the right effect they need to be in all areas of secondary schools, including classrooms, as is the case in Scotland.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “This is a worrying time for schools. As always, the safety and wellbeing of pupils, staff and families is the number one priority.
“Given the level of uncertainty about the new variant, we are pleased the government is taking a precautionary approach.
“It only makes sense for the requirements for face masks in schools to match the rules for the wider population.
“It’s good that the government has moved swiftly to give clarity to schools and parents about the new requirements.”
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In a media statement, the Department for Education said face coverings should be worn in communal areas of schools and colleges from Monday.
The measures will be reviewed in three weeks, the statement said.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “The news of a new variant – the so-called Omicron variant – will have understandably caused concern for people across our country, including our teachers, wider education and childcare staff, parents, pupils and students.
“We are already taking targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we find out more information about the new variant.
“As we do so, we will continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and children continue to benefit from classroom teaching.
“We are working with education and childcare settings to enhance safety measures where needed, including introducing isolation for 10 days for close contacts of suspected Omicron cases.
“I’d like to thank everyone working to support our children and young people for their patience and hard work.”
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