NEWS
25/08/2020 13:39 BST | Updated 25/08/2020 17:16 BST

Why Face Masks In Schools Could Be Boris Johnson's Next U-Turn

Scotland, academies and possibly even London are going their own way on the issue.

Boris Johnson is under increasing pressure to make face masks mandatory for schoolchildren in England as the country becomes an increasing outlier both nationally and internationally over the policy.

There are even signs that children across England may find themselves subject to different rules.

On Tuesday, the PM said the guidance that masks are not required in England’s schools could be altered if the medical advice changed, but for the time being was sticking to a no-mask policy.

He told reporters: “On the issue of whether or not to wear masks in some contexts – you know, we’ll look at the the changing medical evidence as we go on.

“If we need to change the advice then of course we will.”

The position puts him at odds with an increasing number of groups, including:

The World Health Organisation 

The World Health Organisation advises children over 12 should wear masks, and when asked why he was not following the advice, Johnson said: “The overwhelming priority is to get all pupils into school.

“And I think that the schools, the teachers, they’ve all done a fantastic job of getting ready and the risk to children’s health, the risk to children’s wellbeing from not being in school is far greater than the risk from Covid.

“If there are things we have to do to vary the advice on medical grounds, we will, of course, do that. But as the chief medical officer, all our scientific advisers, have said, schools are safe.”

Scotland

Pupils in Scotland will be required to wear a face covering when moving around schools, Holyrood’s education secretary has confirmed.

Secondary schools will be given “obligatory guidance” that pupils should wear face coverings in corridors and communal areas in schools in Scotland from August 31, John Swinney said on Tuesday.

Wales

Also on Tuesday, Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething announced a review into the country’s stance.

He said: “In light of the update to World Health Organisation advice on the use of face coverings for children over 12 – and the decision by the Scottish government to introduce wider face covering wearing in schools – I’ve asked the children and schools advisory group... to consider the current guidance here in Wales.”

London

In a sign of an internal rebellion in England over the issue, mayor of LondonSadiq Khan is “moving towards” a position that teenagers should wear masks in schools where they cannot socially distance, the PA news agency reported.

A source told PA that Khan is continuing to consult with health experts to ensure that London is following the most up-to-date advice and will do so ahead of children returning to schools.

The wearing of masks could apply to corridors and communal areas, but may not be as necessary in classrooms where it is easier to socially distance.

It is understood Khan has also asked his team to consult with colleagues in Scotland where schools have been back for two weeks.

Teachers

While any guidance is only likely to affect secondary schools, Ellie Boyd, a teacher at the Hartest Primary School in Suffolk, told HuffPost UK it’s a “tricky” issue.

“I don’t think the little ones would cope with it, but for the older ones I think it makes sense,” she said.

“It seems a bit crazy that it would be the only job where you’re expected to work without any kind of PPE, but then you’re also stood at the front of a classroom with all the pupils facing you.”

Academies 

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning, which has 52 academies across England, said giving pupils visors and masks for moving in between lessons made schools “as Covid-safe as possible”.

“Oasis is responsible for 32,000 children, and around about 4,500 staff, not just teachers but all staff in schools,” he told PA.

“And we are responsible to make those schools as Covid-safe as possible.”

He added: “This isn’t about our primary schools, and it’s not about our secondary schools in lessons, and it’s not about the bubbles, it is about transition in schools.

“And we all have a responsibility to one another, as the prime minister said, ‘hands, face and space’. So this isn’t in rebellion against the prime minister, this is trying to enact what Boris has asked us to do. We’re trying to work out the details of the big picture.”

Deaf children

The National Deaf Children’s Society said that schools and colleges must be ready to meet the needs of deaf pupils – such as investing in clear masks.

Ian Noon, chief policy adviser, said: “Face masks in education would have serious consequences for the UK’s 50,000 deaf children.

“For many, there may be little benefit in even attending school or college because they won’t understand their teachers and classmates, with loneliness and isolation a tragic result.

“Public health must always be the priority, so if face masks are introduced, schools and colleges must be ready to meet deaf pupils’ needs by investing in clear face masks, making every reasonable adjustment possible and urgently discussing the best way forward with specialist teachers, parents and deaf pupils themselves.

“Education is a right, not a privilege, and this does not change because you’re deaf.” 

The bigger picture

If the government U-turns on the issue of masks in schools, it will be yet another instance of Boris Johnson’s government abruptly changing its mind on a major policy during the coronavirus pandemic.

EvictionsA-levels, the immigration health surcharge and free school meals are just four of at least 10 made so far this year.