Ten points on the wearing of face coverings to reduce the risk of transmission and on circumstances where medical masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) may be appropriate.
- Face coverings are an essential part of reducing the risk of transmission. Face coverings which are not medical standard masks are intended to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19 if the wearer has it, rather than protecting the wearer. Medical masks also protect the wearer.
- From 17 May, the Department for Education (DfE) no longer recommends that face coverings should be worn in the classroom by staff or students in schools/colleges. However, staff and visitors should continue to wear them in corridors/communal areas. Face coverings may still be needed in certain situations where social distancing cannot be maintained. Directors of public health in some localities, may reinstate the wearing of face coverings in schools and colleges according to local rates and the presence of variants of concern where this is deemed appropriate – see applicable government guidance. Children and young people aged 11 and over must still wear a face covering on public transport. In accordance with advice from PHE, they must also wear a face covering when travelling on dedicated transport to secondary school or college. This does not apply to children and young people who are exempt from wearing face coverings.
- The fact that the DfE ‘no longer recommends’ the wearing of face coverings means that heads can continue to require them if they wish, particularly in certain situations - for example in small poorly ventilated classrooms.
- On 4 May, the NEU joined forces with a wide coalition of scientists, supported by education trade unions, other organisations and individuals, to seek to urge Gavin Williamson to consider the global and national evidence on current infection rates in schools when making decisions about use of face coverings in schools and colleges. Decisions on lifting of restrictions should be taken based on data, not dates, and whilst there is still significant community transmission, face coverings, alongside other measures such as improved ventilation, are an essential part of the wider control system in schools and colleges. Masks help keep students and staff safe and are also part of the overall effort to reduce community transmission and allow the safe lifting of restrictions to be achieved as soon as possible. They also minimise educational disruption, allowing students to remain in school and protect household members, including clinically vulnerable contacts from onward risk of infection.
A further joint letter was sent on 13 May by NEU, GMB, NASUWT, UNISON and Unite to all heads and employers (LAs and MATs) encouraging them to use the flexibility in the wording of the DfE advice to actively encourage students and staff in secondary schools and colleges to continue wearing face coverings in classrooms and communal areas – subject to review in the run up to the next step on the national roadmap from 21 June.
- The NEU believes that, while the DfE advice remains in place, any students or members of staff who choose to wear a face covering for purposes of personal or collective reassurance should be permitted to do so. The NEU expects schools and colleges to respect this reasonable position. This reflects the Health and Safety Executive’s advice that if staff choose to wear face coverings, this should be supported by employers. Should any head teacher seek to prevent the wearing of face coverings, the NEU will support members who wish to secure a reversal of that position. Finally, the NEU favours the use of reusable face coverings rather than disposable ones on environmental grounds.
- In certain circumstances, school and college staff may require medical face masks and other PPE to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19 by students. Where risks cannot adequately be controlled in other ways, the law requires that PPE must be supplied by employers. Risk assessments in relation to certain types of work with students (those with multiple or profound special needs) might require the provision of PPE such as medical face masks, face visors, aprons and gloves.
- The DfE position, is that such PPE is only needed in a very small number of situations - where an individual child, young person or other learner becomes ill with Covid-19 symptoms, and only then where 2 metres cannot be maintained, and where a child, young person or learner already has routine intimate care needs that involve the use of PPE, in which case the same PPE should continue to be used.
- The NEU disagrees with this position and believes that the DfE has failed to fully understand the risks to staff working in settings such as specific learning disability and profound and multiple learning disabilities and also in other early years and SEND settings, where close personal contact with pupils who cannot control behaviour such as spitting, coughing or sneezing, or whose behaviour or learning needs to be physically managed, creates airborne risks which cannot be controlled in other ways. Cleaning and laundry staff and anyone administering first aid or medical care should also be provided with appropriate PPE as necessary following a risk assessment.
- The NEU therefore advises that staff working in such circumstances should be provided with PPE. PPE, including FFP2 or FFP3 grade masks, if appropriate, should be provided for staff administering first aid, medical care or personal care activities where social distancing cannot be maintained - for example, in some special schools and nurseries. Where PPE is needed it must be appropriate for the individual and training must be given in its proper use and disposal - hearing aid users cannot wear ties around the ears, while British Sign Language users or those who need children to see their mouth will need clear masks.
- Risk assessments should also consider the need for appropriate PPE to be provided for staff who are defined as clinically vulnerable, including pregnant women, or those who have vulnerable family members, before their return to work in school. The NEU advises that extremely clinically vulnerable staff and women in the third trimester of pregnancy should be permitted to work from home and this advice is not affected by any offer to provide medical grade PPE to such staff.
- The NEU emphasises that other safety precautions, such as washing hands and enhanced cleaning may not be sufficient to protect staff and students. Proper consideration must therefore be given to schools’ and colleges’ policies on the wearing of face coverings and provision of PPE.