Major change to mask advice for Lancashire secondary school pupils from next week
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A national requirement for students to cover their faces in senior schools and colleges was dropped by the government in mid-May as England took its third step on the roadmap out of lockdown.
However, the directors of public health for Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council recommended at the time that masks should continue to be worn in classrooms and communal areas in order to offer additional protection against the Delta variant of the virus, whose rates were then just beginning to rise.
Schools in the two local authority areas were told to take a “more cautious approach” to relaxing the requirement to remove face coverings.
While Blackpool Council’s public health boss did not make the same call – and chose instead to follow the national guidance – pupils across the rest of the county were advised to keep their faces covered in school until at least 21st June, the original date pencilled in for the end of most Covid restrictions.
With that final roadmap step later delayed until 19th July, the local facemask advice for most Lancashire secondary age students effectively remained in place until schools broke up for the summer holidays.
However, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that the guidance is not being reissued for the start of the next academic year – although individual schools can still request that pupils cover their faces as part of their own risk assessments. The LDRS understands that several Lancashire schools had already made that decision prior to confirmation that there would be no county-wide advice on masks from the autumn.
The change in the blanket guidance for Lancashire schools has been criticised by the National Educational Union (NEU) in the county.
Ian Watkinson, Lancashire’s representative on the organisation’s executive – and chair of its national health and safety group – said that mask-wearing was one of the “layered mitigations” that should have remained in place as pupils return for the autumn term.
“To appear to be blindly following the one-size-fits-all government model – which has failed schools at pretty much every stage of the pandemic – is extremely puzzling.
“The priority has got to be protecting children’s education and health, as well as community health. Giving up on mitigations that can make a difference makes no sense whatsoever,” said Mr. Watkinson, himself a teacher. He added that he had yet to speak to any of the county’s three public health directors about the change after learning about it from the LDRS.
Public health bosses will nevertheless be able to recommend the reintroduction of face coverings at school level or across a wider area in the event of what the government describes as a “substantial increase” in cases.
On Friday, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) released a report predicting that the return to school could fuel a surge in Covid cases by the end of September - and suggested ministers should "plan for this eventuality".
Separately, under new England-wide contingency planning guidance for schools, masks and other additional measures, such as more frequent testing, can still be instituted by local directors of public health – a move which will usually be triggered when a certain threshold is met. The advice to schools is that it would “make sense” to consider “extra actions” if five individual children or staff who are likely to have mixed closely - or 10 percent of those in that position overall - test positive within a 10-day period, whichever level is reached first.
After lockdown was fully lifted last month, the government removed the requirement to wear face coverings in certain settings by law, but recommends that they continue to be used “in enclosed and crowded spaces where you may come into contact with people you don’t normally meet”. That includes both public transport – on which school pupils may be travelling – and dedicated school and college transport services.
On their return to class next week, secondary school pupils and college students will be asked to take two lateral flow tests on-site, between three and five days apart. They will then be encouraged to continue with the previous regime of taking two such rapid-result tests per week at home.
If a lateral flow test comes back as positive, they will then be told to take a confirmatory PCR test – and will have to self-isolate while they await the result.
However, under new national rules, close contacts of a Covid case are no longer required to self-isolate if they are under 18-and-a-half years of age or if they have been double jabbed. They will, however, be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and strongly advised to take a PCR test.
So-called “bubbles” within schools – cohorts of children grouped together to reduce the numbers of them who would have to self-isolate in the event of positive cases – are correspondingly not being recommended by the government for the new term.
Abdul Razaq, acting director of public health for Lancashire County Council, said of the return to class next week: “Schools have worked strenuously during the last 18 months to keep our children and our education staff safe from Covid-19.
“Unfortunately, this has sometimes negatively impacted their education, despite the best efforts of education staff, who have been incredible through the pandemic.
“We now know that the risk of severe illness in children and young people is low, while there are significant harms associated with missed education.
“This is why it is so crucial that we help to manage the virus going forward by continuing to test twice-weekly using free, rapid Covid tests.
“This will help us spot positive cases in people with no symptoms, breaking the chain of transmission and keeping any disruption to our children’s education to an absolute minimum,” Mr. Razaq said.
Blackpool Council's director of public health, Dr. Arif Rajpura, called on schools and families to “continue to work together, keep school safe and get back to some normality.”
“As we know, school is a key part of a child’s life and is vital for educational progress, wellbeing and wider development.
“With this in mind, it is really important that everyone connected to school life – children, parents and teaching staff – do all they can to support and follow protective safety measures in place.
“Around one in three people have Covid-19 without any symptoms, so it’s really important that students and families at home are testing regularly twice a week to help stop the spread of infection unknowingly.
“If everyone continues to play their part by practicing good hand hygiene, regularly testing at home and getting a PCR lab test if they have symptoms of Covid-19 – and self-isolating if you test positive – then this will help to break the chain of transmission, drive those rates down and help to keep children in the classroom to learn, develop and have fun, safely.
“Thank you to everyone who continues to protect the community,” Dr. Rajpura added.
Meanwhile, Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen Council, said that children “have lost enough days of their education” over the last 18 months.
He added: “As the school and college terms start, we want to work together with parents, guardians, and pupils and students themselves to keep everyone safe and keep our Covid rates – which are now among the lowest in the country – down.
“We do expect a slight surge in new cases due to the fact many young people will have not tested over the summer holidays and, with the majority being asymptomatic, are likely to not know they’re infectious. However, we hope this will settle down into a low level of cases identified through testing.
“Most of the cases identified initially are unlikely to be related to school-based outbreaks, but cases picked up during the holidays.
“It’s crucial to follow the new guidance, get tested, help to isolate positive cases and keep more of our children in education.
“We’re grateful to the leaders of all our educational establishments in Blackburn with Darwen who continue to work closely with us and offer their support to our Covid response,” Professor Harrison said.
The Covid case rate across the Lancashire County Council area in the week to 21st August stood at 291 per 100,000 people, below the England average of 330. Blackpool's rate during the same period was 430 - inside the top 40 top-tier council areas in the country - while in Blackburn with Darwen it was 228, the seventeenth-lowest.
‘DISRUPTION ALMOST GUARANTEED’
The National Education Union has launched a petition calling upon the government to take “urgent action” to invest in ventilation and air purification systems in schools.
It comes after the union’s Lancashire representative – and national health and safety group chair – Ian Watkinson last month told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that schools should be provided with HEPA [high efficiency particulate air] filters to help stem the spread of Covid in the classroom.
The government announced last week that it would be supplying 300,000 CO2 monitors to schools over the course of the autumn term in an attempt to identify where ventilation needs to be improved.
“The new monitors will enable staff to act quickly where ventilation is poor and provide reassurance that existing ventilation measures are working,” the Department for Education (DfE) said in a statement.
However, Mr. Watkinson criticised the fact that they would not be in place for the start of the new term and said that the move would merely be “paying lip service” to the problem unless appropriate action was taken in response to any concerning readings from the devices.
He added that freestanding HEPA systems – like those being used in classrooms in New York – should be supplied to England's schools alongside the monitors.
“How much more confidence would it give parents and children to know that there is something in the room that means the chances of them breathing in Covid and getting ill from it are going to be massively reduced?
“As things stand, it seems that we’re almost guaranteed to see major disruption to children’s learning once more – it feels like we’re going to see mass infection of kids again, some of them are going to get ill and some will get long Covid,” said Mr. Watkinson, who also wants to see 12-15-year-olds offered the Covid vaccine.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds across Lancashire have been urged by public health bosses to get a jab now that they are eligible.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Education remains a national priority, and the plans for autumn will make sure schools and colleges deliver high-quality, face-to-face education to all pupils with minimal disruption.
“We know that being out of education causes significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, mental and physical health.
“Thanks to the success of the vaccine programme, we are able to return closer to a normal education experience for the autumn term. The measures in place strike the right balance between making schools safe with enhanced ventilation, Covid testing and vaccinations of older students and staff, and reducing disruption by removing bubbles and face coverings.”
The government has also launched a trial of air purifiers in 30 schools in Bradford, which is designed to assess the technology in education settings and whether it could reduce the risk of Covid transmission.