Schools face 'mask anarchy' unless rules cleared up, senior MP says

1 March 2021, 19:47

Pupils wear protective face masks at Outwood Academy Adwick in Doncaster
Pupils wear protective face masks at Outwood Academy Adwick in Doncaster. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

There could be "mask anarchy" in schools if regulations on face coverings are not made clearer, a senior Conservative MP has said.

Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee, insisted "definitive regulations" must be put in place on whether students should wear face coverings.

Teachers are being put under "enormous pressure" because of the current confusion, he added.

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MPs also heard on Monday that many teachers are "worried" about the return of all schools in England, with some opposition MPs pressing the Government to adopt a phased approach instead.

Schools set to reopen on March 8, with secondary school students advised to wear masks when social distancing cannot be maintained.

Mr Halfon told the Commons, because the advice on masks is advisory, “if a pupil or a parent on behalf of a pupil objects to comply with the wishes of a head teacher to wear a mask, are we not in danger of creating mask anarchy?”

“Enormous pressure is being put on head teachers... because of the confusion", he added.

He said: “Is it not better to come down firmly on one side or another and provide clearly definitive regulations to help teaching staff?”

Mr Gibb responded: "We said very clearly that we strongly recommend students in secondary schools to wear face coverings in classrooms where it's not possible to keep social distances between pupils.

"And we've also said for quite a number of months that where in communal areas of a school it's not possible to maintain social distance, then staff and adults and students in secondary schools should also wear face masks."

Earlier, Conservative MP Laura Trott told Education Secretary Gavin Williamson many teachers “are worried about a full return”.

She asked: "Will (Mr Williamson) do all he can to share the evidence with head teachers about the low infection risk in schools so they are fully equipped to reassure teachers that schools are safe?"

Mr Williamson said summarised data and evidence has already been published, adding "extra steps" are being taken to ensure testing at secondary schools in a bid to provide "confidence to the whole education community and wider community".

Labour's Ian Lavery suggested the Government is "ignoring the science" by reopening schools in England in one go rather than adopting a phased approach, adding in the Commons: "With this Government forging ahead regardless, how much must be done to tackle the critical issues of PPE, adequate ventilation in classrooms, and vaccinating?"

Mr Gibb replied: "Every step of the way we've followed the science."

For Labour, shadow education minister Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) suggested Mr Williamson should "step aside" unless he could provide the required "leadership and ambition" to support a generation of schoolchildren.

Mr Williamson also did not rule out the prospect of the school year being restructured to reduce the length of summer holidays.

He said “a whole and broad range of different ways of giving children a boost” were being looked at “in terms of being able to not just catch up in terms of any learning that they've lost, but actually more fundamentally make major changes to actually how we drive educational attainment over a generation and more.”

He confirmed that reducing the school holidays was one of the options being considered.