The Government faces a battle with teaching leaders over the return to normality for students, as the head of the country’s largest education union called for face masks to return in September.
Dr Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said on Friday that face coverings in secondaries should “absolutely” be reconsidered at the beginning of the new school year if Covid infections remained high.
Ministers are now looking at scrapping bubbles from July 19 to end the “madness” of whole classes being sent home if a student tests positive.
They are considering replacing them with daily testing, enabling students who are identified as close contacts to remain in school if they continue to test negative.
The NEU, which represents 450,000 teachers, is not opposed to scrapping the bubble system, which The Telegraph has called for as part of its campaign to end disruption in schools and put children first as the country recovers from Covid-19.
However, Dr Bousted told the Telegraph that the union’s support would be dependent on ministers implementing other mitigations, including face masks, better ventilation and public health officials administering twice weekly tests to prevent delta variant spiralling further in schools.
Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretaries of the National Education Union
Credit: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News
The NEU also believes that children should be vaccinated, subject to the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
Concerns over testing and ventilation are shared by the headteacher unions ASCL and NAHT, which on Friday urged Gavin Williamson to shift the burden of testing from teachers to NHS test and trace and an “appropriate public health body”.
In a joint letter with the NEU, they expressed their “dismay” and “anger” over the lack of clarity provided to schools over the Government’s plans.
Warning that schools were just a week to a fortnight away from closing for the summer holidays, they added that the lack of communication over what heads should prepare for was “starting to feel like contempt”.
The requirement for face coverings in secondary schools was removed in May, with Downing Street on Friday signalling that ministers have no plans for them to return.
‘Young people have sacrificed so much’
Mr Williamson has also made clear he does not believe pupils should be subject to tougher restrictions than the wider population after July 19.
The Education Secretary told The Telegraph: "Young people have sacrificed so much and I will continue to be guided by the principle that children’s education and freedom must come first.
"I look forward to continuing collaboration with the sector and unions, and it is important we do this constructively to support the progress and education of our children."
Campaign for children (Day 4)
But Dr Bousted pointed out that outbreaks had surged in recent weeks, with the number reported in schools jumping from 96 to 148 in the week to June 20. It is the highest weekly number of outbreaks since December.
At the same time, the number of children taking tests at home has continued to fall.
“Masks are something which schools and children are already used to,” she continued.
‘Schools are doing everything they can to keep schools open’
“The question isn’t whether they should be considered but why they were ever taken away, given that we’ve seen a doubling of outbreaks.
“Schools are doing everything they can to keep schools open. If we are going to say that contact tracing is replaced by lateral flow testing it needs to be done properly.
“So we’ve got to make sure the mitigations are in place. That means Public Health England taking over the lateral flow testing for schools and continuing that through the autumn term.
“And the other thing to consider is whether to vaccinate children in schools, subject to advice from the JCVI. If you’re not going to vaccinate children then you need to make sure there are ventilation systems in schools. If you take something away, you need to put something serious in its place.”
How has your child been affected by lockdown? Let us know below
Children lockdown mental health callout/form