Dozens of secondary schools in England have reintroduced mask requirements in the classroom, despite government guidance dropping the rule in May.
As many pupils returned from the half-term break, schools in areas with high Covid infection rates, including many in the north-west such as Tameside, Cheshire and Oldham, as well as Bedford, Kent and Staffordshire, have reintroduced mask-wearing amid evidence that the Delta variant first identified in India is spreading rapidly in schools.
Other schools in the north-west, including in Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton and Bury, had already asked students to keep their masks on last month.
Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser and the chair of Independent Sage, has called on the government to reintroduce mandatory face coverings in all secondary schools.
Since 17 May, secondary pupils nationwide have not been required to wear face masks in classrooms, although the Department of Education advises that local authorities can decide to reintroduce them in response to local outbreaks.
According to a Public Health England report released on Friday, about one in 250 schools – 97 primary and secondaries – have had outbreaks with at least one variant case linked to them in the last four weeks. The cohort worst affected by the Delta variant in Blackburn with Darwen, currently the UK’s top Covid hotspot, is 12- to 18-year-olds, a pattern reflected in many areas with high rates.
Louise Jackson, Bedford council’s health lead, said all secondary schools in the borough had been advised to reinstate mask-wearing following outbreaks linked to the variant. “We know that schools are a place where this spreads. It would make no sense whatsoever to see students removing their masks at this point, in an area with a high rate of infection,” she said.
A letter to parents from one school in Denton, Greater Manchester, said Tameside’s public health chief, Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, had written to all local headteachers recommending “the continued use of face coverings for all pupils and staff in school until the end of the school term”.
Another letter seen by the Guardian, from a school in Wilmington, Kent, said masks were being reintroduced for all staff and students following an increase in cases in the Dartford area.
King told Sky News on Monday that relaxing government guidance related to masks in schools was not “a wise thing to do”. “I do hope the government will rethink this in the light of the current figures,” he added.
“Let me ask you, if I may, to ask the government: are they actually believing in herd immunity amongst schoolchildren? Is that why they’re saying take masks off, so that the disease spreads rapidly and they all become immune by having had the disease?” King said.
Paul Whiteman, the head of the National Association of Head Teachers, said guidance on masks should be kept “under constant review” in light of the rapidly changing data, and “proactive measures” were always better than reactive ones.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, raised the issue in the Commons on Monday in response to a statement from the health secretary, Matt Hancock. Ashworth said there had been “significant outbreaks in schools pre-half-term”.
“We know children can transmit the virus and are at risk of long Covid,” he continued. “So again, can I ask why mask-wearing is no longer mandatory in secondary schools?”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the reintroduction of masks may be advised for a temporary period in response to particular localised outbreaks, including variants of concern.
“In all cases, any educational drawbacks should be balanced with the benefits of managing transmission. The local action committee structure should be used in such circumstances to reintroduce the use of face coverings,” they said. “Immediate outbreak response (at the level of individual settings or a cluster of settings) remains for local directors of public health to advise on.”