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Face coverings in schools are a 'price worth paying', says Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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An education boss has backed the Government's decision to reintroduce face coverings in secondary schools - but has called for better ventilation.

Year 7 pupils and above have been using face coverings in the classroom and communal areas since Monday over concerns schools remaining open for face-to-face learning could aid the spread of Covid-19 cases.

Geoff Barton, former headteacher at King Edwards VI, in Bury St Edmunds, and now general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the decision to reintroduce face masks was worth it if it meant keeping children in school and learning.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

"We support this measure in response to the surge in cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 because of the obvious need to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus and keep as many young people and staff in the classroom as possible," he said.

"If it helps to maintain face-to-face teaching it is surely a price worth paying."

But Mr Barton said more support was needed from the Government for improved ventilation in schools and colleges.

He added: "It (Government) has recently announced the provision of 1,000 air cleaning units for special educational needs and alternative provision settings, and an additional 7,000 air cleaning units for schools, colleges and early years settings.

"While we welcome this investment, we are not convinced that it is enough to meet the numbers that may be required, and nor does it address the fact that Government guidance on ventilating classrooms still amounts to little more than opening external windows and doors.

"This can make it difficult to maintain a comfortable learning environment during cold weather and it is frustrating that this issue is still unresolved 21 months after the pandemic began.”

Meanwhile, NASUWT, a teachers union, has raised concerns over children returning to school.

It comes as Suffolk County Council revealed there were 1,842 positive coronavirus cases in children and young people aged 0-19 years across the county in the seven days to January 5.

In a statement, Simon Whitney , deputy Suffolk secretary of the union, said: "The widespread infections of the latest Covid outbreak have hit staff and pupils (of all ages) badly and will inevitably lead to some schools closing.

"It will not be so easy to revert to online learning as previously due to the mix of pupils at school or at home and teachers, and other school staff, being torn between catering for the pupils online, in school and their own families.

"It is pointless the Prime Minister saying the NHS and hospitals will be under great pressure over the next few weeks without including schools.

"The staff and pupils in schools will also have many absences due to illness and isolation.

"As children isolate, parents have to stay at home and the whole downward spiral leads to less services and productivity in the economy."

Mr Whitney added: "As throughout the entire pandemic NASUWT members, teachers and school staff will do everything possible to assist their pupils but if 20%+ school staff are off work there is no safe way to run schools and certainly not provide an acceptable education.

"Schools are not a baby sitting service to enable people to return to work and certainly not to cover up for the incompetence of a government which has ‘let the infection run wild’ and not provided proper means of ventilating schools.

"As with all actions there is a consequence and the Government’s consequences in England will be greater infections, more school closures and less learning opportunities for children."

Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary, said: "Being in face to face learning is undoubtedly the very best place for children and young people’s education and wellbeing, and my priority remains on keeping early years settings, schools, colleges and universities open so that face-to-face education can continue.

"As we enter this new term, I want to thank all staff working in education for their continued dedication and resilience.

"It is through the hard work of all of you that we have ensured, and will continue to ensure pupils and students get the learning that they deserve.

"We must continue to look forward and not forget how far we have come in our fight against this virus.

"The very best way we can continue to protect ourselves and our families is by getting the booster, or second jab if you are aged 12-15 – as soon as possible. I urge anyone who hasn’t done this to do so now."

Dame Rachel de Souza (DBE), children’s commissioner for England, said: "I want our classrooms open and operating because I firmly believe it is where all children belong and want to be.

"We owe it to them to make sure this happens."