Ace covers have been announced for public areas in England’s schools and colleges 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.
The guidelines do not mean that masks must be worn in classrooms but it is recommended that masks be worn in public areas such as corridors.
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.
“I would like to thank everyone who works to support our children and youth for their patience and hard work.”
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”.
Omicron makes the risk of disrupting education more obvious: Any close contacts of the Omicron case, staff or pupils, will have to self-isolate for 10 days, whether or not they have been vaccinated.
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. “
Dr Patrick Roach, Secretary General of NASUWT – Teachers Union, welcomed the guidance but added: “If schools are to maintain safety for the remainder of this term, the government will need to accept that its messages must be stronger and that the rules governing segregation must be Close contacts in particular are clear and powerful.”
He said the government needed to consider strengthening its advice to request close contacts to self-isolate if they had symptoms of Covid-19, adding: “In the event that there is a delay in a pupil getting a PCR test, or refusing to do so, there is a real risk that close people will continue to have the variant The new Omicron may not attend school for longer than is appropriate, which could put others at risk of contracting the new variant and further transmission of the virus in schools and in the wider community.”
Dr Roach said “significant numbers of pupils” are not undergoing the recommended twice-weekly lateral flow tests and the government should “define a more effective strategy for Covid testing to ensure that all schools continue to be safely open”, while providing them with the resources to implement basic safety measures.