Secondary school pupils in parts of the north of England are being told to carry on wearing face masks in the classroom next week amid concerns about the Indian variant of coronavirus.
Secondary schools and colleges across Lancashire are being advised by directors of public health to keep face masks in class until June 21 due to the spread of the “variant of concern”.
Bolton and Bury councils are asking secondary schools and colleges to keep face coverings in place until further notice following a surge in cases.
The advice comes after the Government confirmed that it will remove the face mask requirement for pupils in England from Monday, when more indoor mixing is allowed when restrictions are lifted further.
A school leaders union’ said it supported the schools which were planning to extend the use of face coverings among pupils beyond next week, adding that they are “best placed” to make the call.
MPs and parents have raised concerns about face masks in class disrupting pupils’ learning and wellbeing since they were introduced in March, but unions and scientists have called for them to remain in class for longer to ensure pupils, staff, parents and the community are not put at risk of infection.
The Indian variant of coronavirus has been detected in Bolton, Greater Manchester, as well as in Blackburn, Lancashire, and Sefton in Merseyside, which have all seen rates rise rapidly.
The directors of public health from Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council are advising schools and colleges across the county to keep face masks in place until June 21.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire County Council’s director of public health, said: “This is a very tough recommendation to make at a time when the restrictions are set to ease nationally on Monday May 17.
“But the increase in prevalence of this variant in the North West means we need to take some prudent steps to help reduce its spread.
“Wearing face coverings in schools and colleges for a few weeks longer will help to contain this and ensure the variant doesn’t take hold.
“This is vital so we can build on the good work to keep levels of infection, hospital admissions and the numbers of people becoming seriously ill low.”
A letter from Bolton council to parents said it was “asking schools to retain the use of face coverings, as per the current arrangements, until further notice.”
Bolton is the area with the highest rate of cases, with 553 new infections in the seven days to May 9.
The letter, from the council’s children’s services and public health directors, said: “There have been instances where young people attending school or college have contributed to the spread of the virus.
“We believe it would be irresponsible to wait until we have higher levels of the newer variants of Sars-CoV2 circulating before we act.”
A similar letter has been sent from Bury council to parents advising face masks to be retained in class and the council said all secondary schools and colleges in the area are following the advice.
Julien Kramer, interim assistant director of education and inclusion at Bury council, wrote: “We have made significant progress in reducing cases of Covid-19, there is a risk that this progress is undermined by the spread of this more infectious variant.
“Widespread transmission of this variant would risk slowing down or reversing the progress we have made towards removing restrictions on meeting family and friends and reopening businesses.
“I am sure that you will understand the need for caution at this time.”
Children at secondary schools in Selby, North Yorkshire, are also being advised to continue wearing masks beyond next week due to high transmission rates.
Local director of public health Louise Wallace said: “In consultation with education colleagues, we have therefore taken the common sense approach of suggesting schools consider continuing to use face coverings in those geographic areas where the Covid positive rates are highest.”
Sefton’s public health team has also advised that masks should be worn in schools beyond Monday in areas which are currently experiencing outbreaks.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are aware that some schools are intending to extend the use of face masks among pupils beyond Monday.
“We back schools in the decisions they make.
“They best know their context and how their parents, staff, and pupils feel about the issue of face masks and they are therefore best placed to make a call on how to respond to the Government’s guidance.
“There is also provision in the Government guidance for local action committees to reintroduce the use of face masks for pupils on a temporary basis in response to localised outbreaks, including variants of concern, and for decisions to be made by local directors of public health.
“There is clearly a great deal of concern about the variant which originated in India and the situation is obviously going to be fluid in the immediate future with regards to face masks.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister has set out the measures needed to tackle the new variant of concern.
“In line with our plans published earlier this week to address variants of concern in education, we have also agreed with directors of Public Health that face coverings will remain in place in Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton.
“We are continuing to work closely with local authorities in these areas.”