'We must move cautiously'

Unite joins education unions, scientists and parents in warning over scrapping face coverings in secondary schools too soon

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Unite has joined other education unions, scientists, public health experts, parents and pupils in calling for Covid safety measures in secondary schools to remain in place and only be lifted once there is strong evidence supporting the decision.

The call comes after reports that the government was weighing up lifting the requirement on May 17 that secondary school pupils and staff wear face coverings.

Dozens of education unions, including Unite, alongside nearly 20 leading scientists and public health experts, as well as more than 400 parents and pupils, wrote an open letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson calling on him to halt these plans.

“We are extremely concerned at reports that the government plans to stop requiring children to wear face coverings in secondary school classrooms from 17 May in England,” the letter read.

“We are not aware of any plans to lift face covering requirements in relation to shops or transport, where people generally spend less time in close contact with large groups.”

In the letter, the group called on the government to consider that more than 40,000 children have suffered from long-Covid, where symptoms of the virus persist for more than five weeks, as well as 114,000 school staff.

“The ONS data indicates that two-thirds of people with long COVID have some degree of limitation in activity, suggesting that the condition has important impacts on people’s day to day lives,” the letter noted.

The letter also highlighted the cautious measures that other countries which have been successful in controlling the virus have taken.

“Countries like Israel fully emerged from lockdown after fully vaccinating more than 80% of adults, and only re-opened schools fully in the last few weeks, with mitigations still in place, including mask mandates in classrooms,” the letter read.

‘It doesn’t make sense’

UniteLive spoke to concerned parent Bella whose daughter, Hazel, is in secondary school.

“As parents of a secondary school child, we fully support and want staff and pupils to keep wearing face masks in school,” she said.

“I know that transmission is really high in secondary schools because my daughter has been home self-isolating on three or four separate occasions because of a confirmed case she’s been in contact with in school. When things were really bad, different school years, which are around 300 students each, would be out almost every week.”

Bella said one of her biggest concerns is for teachers, who she believes should have been prioritised for the vaccine.

“The government has treated teachers appallingly throughout the whole pandemic,” she noted. “They should have been prioritised for the vaccine because they were so keen to keep children in school – if the government wants children in schools, the safest way to do that would be to have vaccinated teachers. The next line of defence are all the other measures to help control transmission including wearing face coverings so it really doesn’t make sense that they want to scrap this vital measure this so soon.

“I think teachers and other school staff have a right to feel safe,” Bella added. “At the end of the day, they have their own families as well and they’re going to be going home wondering if they’re going to infect their own families.”

‘I want people to be safe but I also miss things being normal’

Bella’s daughter Hazel, who is autistic, has struggled wearing a face covering in many respects, especially since a face covering can be a barrier to important social cues like facial expressions. Although Hazel, 12, has an exemption card, she voluntarily continues to wear a face covering in school.

Hazel herself has told UniteLive what that feels like.

 “I know we wear them to keep each other safe but being taught by someone in a face mask is really hard,” she said. “It muffles their voice and you can’t see their lips moving so following lessons is quite stressful because you feel like you’re always missing stuff.

“Also it’s not like when you go to a shop and you just put your mask on to go inside and get something,” Hazel added. “We have our masks on all day long, we only take them off to eat or drink and even that is only allowed in certain areas. I started at my school in September and I’ve never seen some of my teachers faces. I want people to be safe and not get sick but I also miss things being normal so much.”

Still, on the whole, mum Bella believes Hazel’s and other children’s mental health has suffered much more under lockdown when schools were closed – and teachers have played a vital role in supporting pupils ever since they re-opened.  

“Hazel’s teachers have all been fantastic and so supportive,” she said. “They put a real emphasis on well-being when they all went back because I think they knew that the children were not in a very good place. The most recent lockdown affected everyone a lot harder than the previous one.

Responding to Tory MPs who have previously said pupils’ mental health was suffering wearing face coverings in schools, Bella said, “I think teachers are well aware of mental health issues and I think they’re the best people to make that judgement call in schools, rather than government. I can’t see that the government knows more than the teachers who are on the frontline supporting our children day in and day out.”

Long-covid risk

Unite national health and safety advisor Rob Miguel said that the union is calling for a full review of wearing face coverings in secondary schools ahead of June 21 – the next date in the government’s roadmap out of lockdown when most restrictions are set to be lifted. No changes should be made before then and before the evidence is carefully evaluated.

“As we have said in our collective letter to the education secretary, on May 17, there are no plans to remove face covering requirements in, for example, public transport or in shops so it really doesn’t make sense that you would remove that requirement in secondary schools at that particular time,” he said.

“There is evidence that long-Covid can affect children as well as adults,” Miguel added. “Data shows that at least 43,000 children and 114,000 teaching staff are suffering from long-Covid – this is a significant number. There is evidence also that the virus may act systemically – it doesn’t just affect the lungs but can also damage the heart and kidneys. This could have a lifelong debilitating impact on both pupils and teaching staff. We must move cautiously because of this fact alone.”

Miguel also highlighted the fact that because children are not vaccinated, the risk of transmission in schools is high – and even if children tend not fall seriously ill, high transmission gives the virus more opportunity to mutate.

“These mutations could then be passed on to adults in the wider population as there is evidence that some mutations make it more difficult for the vaccine to control,” he noted.

Miguel said he understands that face coverings can be uncomfortable and distressing for many children – as well as adults – and he added that their efficacy also depends on them being used correctly, which is often not the case with children who may be reticent to wear them. That’s why Unite is calling for schools to have standards on masks accompanied by education on how to wear them effectively.

“Face coverings have an integral role to play in a suite of other controls and protective measures – for example, proper ventilation, using outdoor spaces when appropriate, testing, and hand hygiene among others — and so their importance should be seen in this wider context. It’s fundamental that, guided by scientific evidence, we use every tool at our disposal to help stop transmission of the virus.”

By Hajera Blagg

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