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Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi says he has made the temporary recommendation “to support pupils and teachers as they return to schools this term”. He also announced 7000 air cleaning units for early years, schools and colleges. The Government said the measures were intended to strike a balance between managing the transmission of Omicron along and “reducing disruption to in-person learning.”
The Department for Education said: “Face-to-face education remains a top priority, as the evidence shows it is the best place to be for children’s education and wellbeing.
“To maximise the number of children in school and college for the maximum amount of time, the Government is temporarily recommending that face coverings are worn in classrooms and teaching spaces for students in year 7 or above, in light of the Omicron variant surge.”
The department said the measures were “short term only” and that the advice “builds on the existing proportionate guidance that recommends face coverings for all adults in communal areas of all settings”.
The advice will remain in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are due to expire. It will be reviewed at that point.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said:“Being in the classroom is undoubtedly the very best place for children and I’m looking forward to welcoming pupils back next week to continue their face-to-face learning, which is so important for their education and wellbeing.
“There is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents challenges but the entire education sector has responded with a Herculean effort, and for that I thank each and every one of you.
“The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will bolster our support schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption.”
Ofsted will not ask inspectors who are also school leaders to undertake inspections.
Ofsted has already confirmed that it will not be inspecting secondary schools during the first week of term in January, as schools undertake on-site pupil testing.
The moves follow six trade unions representing education staff across the country issuing a joint call to arms before schools and colleges reopen next week.
They urged the Government to provide air-cleaning units to every school and college that needs them, to commit to providing schools with more resources if on-site coronavirus testing is needed, and to provide improved financial support to schools and colleges for the costs of supply staff to cover for Covid-related absences.
A statement from ASCL (The Association of School and College Leaders), GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU and Unison said speculation surrounding the Omicron variant has pushed them to act.
The statement said: “As trade unions representing the vast majority of education staff, we wish to emphasise that teachers, leaders and support staff desperately want to be able to conduct face-to-face teaching for all children and young people on a consistent basis and without further interruption caused by the pandemic.
“Education staff have moved heaven and earth to support pupils and students throughout the course of the crisis and they remain committed to providing the best possible support for all children and young people.”
Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in public health at the University of East Anglia, questioned the necessity of air filtration units.
He said: “Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in public health at the University of East Anglia, questioned the necessity of air filtration units.
He said: “We have been looking at air filtration in the reduction of infectious disease spread and have not found any convincing epidemiological evidence that it does.
“Until we have a study showing this in the public domain I cannot say this is a good idea.”
Dr Colin Axon, a building engineering scientist and physicist at Brunel University said: “I cannot see that masks nor filtration systems will have any positive measurable effect on transmission.
“Ventilation systems are costly to fit and need to be maintained. They also use energy. They are not something to fit and forget. These measures are not even a sticking plaster and reinforce the sense of danger which is exactly what we should not be doing with children.”
Ellen Townsend, a professor of psychology at Nottingham University: “This is not a neutral intervention. Masks impair communication and development and some children find them frightening or distressing.
“The evidence for masks is very weak. No mass public health measure should be made on weak evidence. Children took the vaccine to end disruption. They did this and they have been lied to. In a post vaccinated world there is no excuse for these useless harmful interventions. Policy makers have to be seen to be doing something even without good evidence.”
Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University said: “Throughout this pandemic, the government has failed to evaluate nonpharmaceutical interventions. The rolling out of ventilation in schools provides the opportunity to undertake randomised trials to test whether the intervention can make a difference to the spread of Covid.
“If we fail to do the trials and evaluate such intervention in schools, we will remain none the wiser over whether they can make a difference to the transmission of covid.”
Professor Robert Dingwall, former government pandemic advisor said: “It would be helpful if the Secretaries of State for Education and for Health could coordinate their approach to the last days of Omicron.
The measures proposed here will do very little to contain the spread of the virus but continue the disruption of schools in pursuit of objectives that are already irrelevant. According to JCVI, 50-80 percent of under 18s already have antibodies from prior infection and ONS have a found that 50 percent of households with a child 12-15 years old report that the child or children have been vaccinated.
Another 30 percent expect that they will do so. Where are all the children in mainstream schools who are going to get seriously ill or even develop a mild infection?
It is also time to follow the science on the ineffectiveness of masking in preventing community transmission. Schools should go back with a clear message – no more testing, stay home if you have symptoms of any respiratory virus, and don’t ventilate classrooms to the point of a pandemic of frostbite once colder weather returns.”
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