No return to Covid bubbles in schools, says education secretary

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said face masks could be made mandatory in England’s schools again – but ruled out a return to the “bubble” system to deal with Covid cases.

More than 200,000 pupils were estimated by the government to have missed classes last week due to the coronavirus – up two thirds on the previous week.

Mr Zahawi ruled out a return to the “bubbles”, which classes and year groups sent home for ten days if one pupil in a group tests positive for the virus.

“I don’t want to return to bubbles,” the minister told Sky News on Thursday. “Because actually you saw the fall off in attendance which really does harm mental wellbeing, mental health of children.”

The recently-appointed education secretary added: “I don’t want to return to that. My priority is to protect education and keeps schools open and children at school.”

However, Mr Zahawi did confirm that the government’s contingency plan for the winter could see face coverings made mandatory in England’s schools once again.

“We have got a contingency plan as you would expect me to do … it contains lots of things, including wearing masks, absolutely,” he said.

Despite Mr Zahawi’s reluctance to re-introduce the strictest Covid measures, dozens of schools up are said to be bringing back masks to combat a deal in Covid cases among pupils.

Schools across the country – including London, Greater Manchester and Cumbria – have told students to wear masks again in communal areas due to a rise in cases in school or the local area.

Some councils, including Devon and Cornwall, have also asked pupils to wear face coverings in schools this term.

The government says local public health directors may advise schools to “temporarily reintroduce” stricter measures if there is a “substantial increase” in Covid cases in its setting or they are in local areas targeted for extra support.

But Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) told The Independent: “There is nothing which prevents schools and colleges taking their own decisions to use face coverings as part of their risk management plans, and some may well have decided to do so taking into account the circumstances in their context.”

Last month, headteachers told The Independent they were imposing their own stricter versions of the government’s test and trace system in a bid to prevent outbreaks and further disruption.

National guidance stopped recommending face masks in communal areas in secondary schools in May, while children have not been required to isolate after being identified as a close contact of a Covid case since August.

Earlier this week, ASCL called the latest statistics on Covid-related absences in schools “grim”.

More than 100,000 pupils in England were out of school last week with a confirmed case of Covid-19, according to government figures.

In total, the government estimated 204,000 pupils in England were absent due to a Covid-related reason. which includes a positive test, suspected case and school closures, on 30 September – a 67 per cent jump compared to two weeks before.

The National Education Union’s vice president Louise Atkinson said a growing number of schools had brought back face coverings and social distancing. “We fully support any schools bringing back such measures,” she said.

It comes as the education secretary admitted there had been problems with the supply of CO2 monitors being rolled out to schools.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Zahawi said: “So we’ve had several thousand delivered. By the end of this month we’ll be touching sort of 80-90,000, and then through November, we scale up to all 300,000 will be delivered.”

Asked why the delivery had taken so long, the minister said: “I think it’s – obviously I’ve only been in department for two weeks – but I think it’s a combination of supply and making sure we’ve got supply, and then working with schools to see how many they need in each school. But we are ramping up through this month and next month.”

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