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Face coverings advice in schools after Omicron variant found

The return of face coverings to public areas in England’s schools and colleges has been announced as part of measures to contain the spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

Under the new directive, all staff, visitors and pupils in Year 7 – the first year of high school – or higher are advised to wear a cap, unless they are excluded.

The measure, effective from Monday, covers all educational institutions including universities, as well as childcare places such as early years care.

In Dorset, schools have been asked to extend additional Covid protection measures due to the high number of cases among children in Dorset.

Measures including enhanced testing, reduced mixing and wearing of face coverings are recommended in schools across the county as infection rates remain higher in school-aged children.

Dorset’s health chiefs are recommending that these measures be extended through the end of the month, with plans to review them further in the coming days.

Education Minister Nadim Zahawi said: “News of the new alternative – the so-called Omicron variant – will understandably cause concern to people across our country, including our teachers, education staff and the broader childcare, parents, pupils and students.

“We are already taking targeted and proportionate actions as a precaution as we discover more information about the new variant.

And as we do this, we will continue to prioritize the education and well-being of children and young people, ensuring that education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and that children continue to benefit from classroom teaching.

“We are working with education and childcare settings to strengthen safety measures when needed, including offering 10-day isolation to close contacts of suspected Omicron cases.

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“I would like to thank everyone who works to support our children and youth for their patience and hard work.”

The Education Ministry said the guidance is provisional and will be reviewed within three weeks.

DfE said students in Year 7 or above should continue to wear face coverings on public and designated school transportation, unless they are exempt, and staff and students should continue to be encouraged to test themselves twice a week using lateral flow tests.

The department also said out-of-schools and colleges would “want to consider” whether to go ahead with any planned international trips for now, given the potential risks to education from the need for isolation and testing upon return to the UK.

Jeff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he supported the measures “as a reasonable response to the risks posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19”.

But he added, “This worrying situation, however, underscores the need for better government support for the education sector.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint Secretary General of the National Education Consortium, said: “We welcome the Department of Education’s guidance that masks must be worn by adults and children of Year 7 and above in public areas. We believe DfE should go further and encourage the wearing of masks in secondary classrooms. It also plans to invest to improve ventilation and air purification.

All of these steps can help limit the spread of COVID and thus reduce disruption to education. Omicron makes the risk of disrupting education more clear: Any contacts of the Omicron case, staff or students, will have to self-isolate for 10 days, whether they have been vaccinated or not. ”

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