The wearing of face coverings as a response to the spread of COVID-19 has been a contentious issue around the world, with some people firmly believing that they should now be worn during all social interactions, and others voicing strong doubts about their effectiveness.
At present, the wearing of face coverings within schools is not mandatory (unless the school is located within an area of local restrictions). The UK Government has outlined a series of controls for schools which are based around two critical approaches; the prevention of transmission and the response to infection. As part of each school’s COVID-19 risk assessment, there should be measures in place to ensure that each premises is COVID secure, and this includes self-isolation of symptomatic individuals, facilities to ensure good respiratory and hand hygiene, and outbreak procedures.
The most challenging part of any COVID-19 risk assessment within a school setting has been the management of social distancing and minimisation of social interactions. The use of fixed groups of students, also known as bubbles, has helped to increase capacity within schools so that a full and varied educational experience can be offered to all. It does, however, mean that if one student tests positive for coronavirus, all students within the same bubble may have to undergo self-isolation for 14 days.
The knock-on effects from excluding large bubbles, which in some cases may be entire year groups, from schools can be highly detrimental to the students and to their families.
So what is the way forward?
The World Health Organisation issued a statement on 21st August indicating that “children over the age of 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular where they cannot guarantee at least 1-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.” Following on from this, the UK Government advised that schools, at their own discretion, can require that these coverings are worn if they do not feel that social distancing can be safely managed within indoor communal areas.
The arguable benefits of wearing these face coverings are that they help to minimise transmission of fluids from the nose and mouth which may contain COVID19 viral particles and they remind the user that we are still experiencing a pandemic and help to heighten awareness.
However, they should not be brought in as a control measure within schools to the detriment of other proven control measures such as effective hand washing, enhanced cleaning techniques, and managed social distancing.
Using face coverings in your school
Firstly, you should seek to manage social distancing and minimise contacts by careful planning of interactions within your school premises. You should review how effective your measures have been in the first weeks of the return to school; it may be that you need to alter timetables, start and end times, and lunch and break arrangements following the October half term. Your COVID-19 risk assessment should be a live document that you review and adapt as circumstances require.
If following your review of your COVID-19 risk assessment, you still feel that social distancing within your site is not safely managed, and you have no other alternatives, you should consider the implementation of face coverings within communal areas. (You will also need to use face coverings for Years 7 and above and staff where local restrictions are in force).
There is still no requirement for children attending primary schools to wear face coverings, but you may decide to require that teaching staff or visitors should wear them in communal spaces. You must also be aware that some individuals are exempt from wearing face coverings for specific reasons.
With adequate social distancing measures between teacher and student in place and enforceable within classrooms, no person needs to wear face coverings in this environment.
Finally, once you have decided to implement face coverings, you must provide clear instructions to staff, children and young people on how to put on, remove, store and dispose of these coverings, and you must update your COVID-19 risk assessment.