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Face masks no longer required in classrooms in England from 17 May
10 May 2021, 17:46 | Updated: 10 May 2021, 19:20
Secondary school pupils in England will no longer be required to wear face masks in class from next week.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the decision to remove the requirement as he updated the country on which coronavirus restrictions will be lifted from May 17.
He told a Downing Street press conference on Monday evening: "We will no longer require face coverings in classrooms, or for students in communal areas, in secondary schools and colleges."
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It is hoped the move will improve interaction between teachers and students, and ensure the clearest possible communication to support learning.
Concerns have been raised about face coverings disrupting pupils' learning and wellbeing since they were introduced in March.
However, union leaders and scientists have called for them to remain in classrooms beyond next week to ensure pupils, staff, parents and the community are not put at risk of infection.
All other protective measures, such as ventilation and social distancing where possible, will remain in schools.
Regular rapid testing will also continue to find asymptomatic cases when they occur.
Staff are not required to wear face coverings in the classroom, but they should continue to wear them in communal areas, such as the staff room, where social distancing may not be possible.
Last week, five unions representing teachers and support staff - as well as scientists and parents - wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson urging him to keep masks in place until at least June 21.
Meanwhile, school leaders unions' have called on ministers to set out the evidence behind any relaxation of rules to address concerns about infection risk.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), accused Mr Johnson of ignoring scientific advice as he warned "we are not out of the woods yet".
He said: "Schools and colleges are doing a very good job of keeping students and staff safe and they should be permitted to retain mask wearing in the classroom if they think it necessary for reasons such as a rise in local infection rates. This would be an entirely reasonable and responsible decision."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "It is obviously better for communication and learning if masks aren't required in classrooms, but any decision to this effect must follow the scientific advice, and it is very worrying that the Government's decision appears to contradict the published evidence."
But Professor John Simpson, head of Public Health Advice, Guidance and Expertise Pillar (PHAGE) at Public Health England, said: "Scientific studies show that Covid-19 transmission in schools remains low. This evidence has been reviewed alongside criteria for the wider easing of restrictions.
"It's important to strike a balance between Covid-19 protection and student wellbeing and the guidance on face coverings for secondary school pupils has been kept under constant review.
"Existing control measures in schools including good ventilation, handwashing, social distancing where possible and twice weekly testing remain hugely important."
Mr Williamson said: "Over the past year we have always put the wellbeing of pupils and staff first, and this step is now the right one, as vaccinations protect the most vulnerable in society and we turn our attention to building back better from the pandemic.
"Testing in schools and colleges continues to be important, so I urge all students, families and teachers to keep testing themselves twice weekly, to help reduce the risk of transmission."
Mr Johnson also announced that schools will be able "to organise trips with overnight stays", but the Department for Education is recommending that schools and colleges do not plan for international visits to take place before the start of the next academic year.