Do children have to wear face masks in secondary schools in the UK?

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  • In the UK, face masks have been compulsory in most public indoor spaces for close to a year now. 

    But as children have been in and out of school over that time, there’s confusion over whether masks have to be worn in secondary schools around the UK.

    It’s become a particularly important issue now that kids have a date to go back to school after lockdown begins to lift on March 8, under the government’s roadmap.

    They haven’t been back in the classroom since before the new Covid-19 variant became dominant in the UK, leading experts to suggest that face masks would be essential in preventing the spread of coronavirus in schools. However, organisations have been quick to point out that they could make communication harder for some.

    Do children have to wear masks in schools in England?

    Secondary school students will have to wear face masks in England when they go back to school, the government has confirmed.

    This is only going to be limited time during the first few weeks after reopening, they have said, while lateral flow testing takes place. Students will have to take four rapid tests in the first two weeks and if they test negative, they’ll be allowed to resume in-classroom teaching.

    Secondary school and college students, along with all staff members, will then be asked to take a voluntary test twice a week as part of the mass testing programme.

    Secondary school students wearing masks as they become compulsory in the UK

    Credit: Getty

    Along with the confirmation that school exams in 2021 are cancelled, the protective measure was announced as part of the plans to end lockdown and bring children back to school. As part of the roadmap, “The government recommends that the use of face coverings in higher education, further education and secondary schools is extended for a limited period to all indoor environments – including classrooms – unless 2m social distancing can be maintained.”

    Guidance for younger pupils wearing masks in UK schools has remained the same since before the third lockdown, as they are still being advised to wear face masks in public spaces in school. However, according to reporting by The Telegraph, at least two primary schools have requested their pupils wear face coverings in the classroom when they come back to school.

    One primary school in Croydon, south London, has asked children from years 1 to 6 – ages five to 11 – to wear some kind of face covering when they’re in school to allow them to “play and socialise” with others in their bubble.

    The advice given was for young students to remove their coverings during P.E lessons and when they’re eating or drinking, but to otherwise keep them on.

    This approach isn’t mandatory under government guidance though, even though it’s been a “successful” measure implemented by the two schools over the last few months, while vulnerable children and the children of key workers have been attending.

    Before schools closed for the third lockdown, all students in year 7 upwards were required to wear face masks in school. While they didn’t have to wear them in classrooms like they do now, face masks in all public spaces – such as hallways, corridors and any place where 2 metre social distancing couldn’t be maintained – were mandatory.

    It followed original advice from the World Health Organisation which said that masks “are a key measure to suppress transmission and save lives.”

    Girl wearing mask in school washing her hands

    Credit: Getty

    “Masks reduce potential exposure risk from an infected person whether they have symptoms or not. People wearing masks are protected from getting infected. Masks also prevent onward transmission when worn by a person who is infected.”

    They added, however, that they should be just one method used as part of a “comprehensive ‘do it all!’ approach”. Other advice on “physical distancing, avoiding crowded, closed and close-contact settings, improving ventilation, cleaning hands, covering sneezes and coughs” should still be followed.

    The approach has been criticised by many already though. The National Deaf Children’s Society have said, “Face masks and coverings can have the effect of obscuring speech, making it harder for deaf children and young people to make use of any residual hearing they have. They therefore present specific challenges for deaf children and young people.”

    Head of policy at the charity, Ian Noon, said, “The government cannot make an announcement and expect this to be enough. It must move quickly to show exactly how it will guarantee deaf children can still access their lessons.”

    Do children have to wear masks in schools in Wales?

    Government advice for schools in Wales says that non-medical grade face masks should be worn by “pupils in year 7 and above on dedicated school transport.”

    “The exception is at mealtimes and when they are outside, unless the school risk assessment indicates that additional measures are needed, for example on a school yard where there are a large number of learners in a relatively small space without separation of contact groups (such as when waiting to enter school).”

    Young girl in primary school in Wales as masks become compulsory in secondary schools in the UK

    Credit: Getty

    The advice does warn against wearing face masks in the classroom if “other control measures are in place” as it will likely have a “negative impact on the learning experience, including hearing and social communication.

    “However if during this current time social distancing cannot be maintained, face coverings should be worn in the classroom by staff in all schools and secondary school learners.”

    Teachers, staff and visitors are also advised to wear coverings if social distancing cannot be maintained, “particularly with the youngest learners”. They have said, “Face coverings should be worn anywhere on the school estate, including in the classroom by staff at primary and secondary schools.

    “Visitors to the school or setting should use a face covering, including parents when dropping off and picking up learners.”

    Pupils are unlikely to return to school in Wales until after Easter, as part of a phased return starting with the younger years.

    Do children have to wear face masks in Scotland?

    As of November 2, pupils in the senior phase of school (S4-6) and their teachers “should wear face coverings in classrooms, as well as when they are moving around the school and in communal areas.”

    Boys wearing masks in secondary school in Scotland

    Credit: Getty

    Government advice also says that adults should wear a face covering at all times where they can’t keep two metres from other adults and/or children and young people, within primary and secondary schools.

    “Face coverings should also be worn by parents and other visitors to any school site (whether entering the building or otherwise), including parents at drop-off and pick-up.”

    Scotland are also undertaking a phased return to schools as those in the youngest years have now gone back to the classroom. Education Secretary John Swinney said, “We will move as quickly as we possibly can do but we have to do it within the scientific and clinical advice that is available to us.”

    Do children have to wear masks in schools in Northern Ireland?

    Any student post-primary school must wear face masks in schools in Northern Ireland, according to updated advice from the government.

    The guidance says that face coverings will be “required in all post primary settings, including the classroom” and there will be “improved signage and stronger public messaging”.

    This means that along with hallways, corridors and other public spaces, face coverings should be worn inside classrooms by both staff and students as well. Those who are exempt for medical reasons will not have to wear one, however.

    Child wearing face mask

    Credit: Getty

    Students in Northern Ireland won’t be returning to the classroom until March 5 at the earliest though, a statement from the government says.

    “The kitchen table is no substitute for the school desk,” First Minister Arlene Foster said, “It is also important though that we give people a clear view of what is happening so we thought it was important to indicate today that we would not be back before 5 March in schools.”

    At what age do children have to wear face masks?

    In England, students in year 7 and above will have to wear face masks.

    Advice published by WHO, which informed the government’s decision to make face masks compulsory in schools, covers three different age groups and suggests that anyone over the age of 12 wears a face mask in public, indoor spaces where social distancing can’t be maintained.

    For those aged between six and 11 years old, it depends on other factors such as the rate of virus transmission and whether the child is coming into contact with high-risk individuals. WHO has also stressed that adult supervision for this age group is necessary, to help children take off and put on their masks securely. 

    Children under the age of five are not required to wear face masks in any environment. 

    Do teachers have to wear face masks?

    Teachers and all other staff, along with parents and visitors entering the site, will have to wear masks in secondary schools in the UK as well.

    WHO says, “In areas where there is widespread transmission, all adults under the age of 60 and who are in general good health should wear fabric masks when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others.”

    “This is particularly important for adults working with children who may have close contact with children and one another.” 

    Where do children have to wear masks in school?

    Wearing masks in secondary schools in the UK is mandatory around most of the site. They will certainly be required in hallways and corridors, where social distancing is difficult to be maintained.

    Under the new guidance, masks in classrooms within UK secondary schools will also be compulsory, if there aren’t provisions for social distancing.

    Students in classroom raising their hands

    Credit: Getty

    Students of any age will not be required to wear their face coverings when eating, however, nor when they are taking part in certain lessons – including P.E.

    What are other countries doing?

    While wearing masks in UK secondary schools might seem like a new rule, guidance about wearing masks in schools elsewhere in Europe have been in place for months now. 

    In Austria, students in primary schools are required to wear masks everywhere except when they’re seated in their classrooms. In secondary schools, the student population are split in half with one set present in school for two days a week and the other half learning from home. The system is then reversed later in the week.

    Children and teachers in France all have to wear face masks, even when a distance of one metre can be enforced. This means that they’re worn through the day, including during lessons. 

    In Italy, face masks are being worn all around the school and windows are kept open during class. During the warmer months, classes will be held outside to help further with social distancing. 

    For those over the age of six in Spain, masks will be compulsory on all school transport and will be required for students and teachers at all times where a 1.5 metre distance can’t be maintained. 

    In Germany, the federal states all have different rules. In most areas, face masks must be worn in schools. Bavaria, for instance, has a policy where primary school children must wear a non-medical grade face covering as soon as they enter the school and while they’re sitting down in the classroom. Adults, however, must wear a medical grade face mask when on site.