At the start of this term, the Department for Education recommended that face coverings be reintroduced in schools to limit infections of the Omicron Covid-19 variant. This decision has been more highly contested than at earlier stages of the pandemic, and there have been numerous news articles questioning the scientific basis for the guidance, criticising the guidance as "dystopian", with reports of large numbers of students refusing to comply.
What are the current rules about mask wearing in English schools?
Strictly speaking, there are no national rules about wearing face coverings in schools in England. The Department for Education (DFE) has temporarily recommended that face coverings be worn by students in years 7 and above in classrooms and teaching spaces from 4 January 2022, in addition to their previous recommendation to wear them in school communal areas. This advice is temporarily in place until it is reviewed on 26 January 2022, when the 'Plan B' regulations are currently scheduled to end.
Do all students have to wear a mask?
The simple answer is no, both because the DFE guidance is just guidance, not rules, and because the guidance itself recognises there may be circumstances where people may not be able to wear face coverings.
Face coverings do not need to be worn outdoors or in situations where wearing a face covering would impact a student's ability to take part in exercise or strenuous activity (for example, PE lessons).
The DFE guidance recognises that some people may not be able to wear a face covering and recommends that schools are mindful and respectful of such circumstances including:
- those who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability;
- those for whom putting on, wearing or removing a face covering will cause severe distress;
- those speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate;
- to avoid the risk of harm or injury; or
- in order to take medication.
Schools, as employers, have a duty to comply with the Equality Act 2010 which includes making reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils.
Face visors or shields can be worn by students who are exempt from wearing a face covering but it should be noted that these are not an equivalent alternative to face coverings in source control of viral transmission as they are unlikely to be effective in preventing the escape of smaller respiratory particles.
What are the consequences if a student refuses to wear a mask?
DfE guidance is clear that no pupil or student should be denied education on the grounds of whether they are, or are not, wearing a face covering.
What happens if a school does not enforce the mask wearing rules?
Whilst it is a legal requirement that face coverings must be worn in a wide range of indoor public spaces and on public transport, this legal requirement does not apply in education settings or on dedicated school transport. The wearing of face coverings in schools are temporary recommendations, not mandatory requirements for schools to implement. The DFE has stated that it is therefore for the schools to decide how best to encourage students to wear face coverings.
In making their own decisions about face coverings, schools should bear in mind their health and safety obligations both to students, and staff, and their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, balancing the needs of those who may be negatively impacted by wearing a face covering and those who may be negatively impacted by people not wearing face coverings (such as students and staff who are particularly vulnerable to serious illness from Covid-19).