The Government has announced the “temporary” move has been made to “maximise the number of children in schools” for the “maximum amount of time” in light of the recent surge in the highly-transmissible strain of the virus.
The new measure was broadly welcomed yesterday by Richard Sheriff, chief executive of Red Kite Learning Trust, which runs schools in Leeds and Harrogate, and member of the executive of Association of school and college leaders (ASCL).
While voicing many’s likely shared “weariness” that the nation was still in this position, he acknowledged that schools “have to do what’s best for children”.
He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “They only have one chance and we have to do the best to keep schools going.”
He admitted the wearing of masks can cause difficulties for pupils, but said it was the “sensible” move to make.
“We have been reluctant to have masks in classrooms for some time but we have always said as headteachers that we will follow the science and if masks will help keep children and staff safe then that's it,” he said.
However he said the Government's use of the word “recommended” over “mandatory” made the job of enforcing mask-wearing harder for headteachers.
“It should be mandatory like it is in other public spaces. I can't understand why that is not the case,” he said.
Face coverings are already recommended in communal areas for older students and staff and Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said schools and colleges would take this latest rule "in their stride".
He said: "While there are obvious drawbacks to the use of face coverings in classrooms, it is clear that the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education with the potential for further widespread disruption of schools, colleges, and young people.
"It is absolutely essential that everything possible is done to reduce transmission and ensure that children remain in school, and we therefore support the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms for students in year seven and above."
He added: "Pupils are accustomed to their use and we are sure the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms is something that schools and colleges will take in their stride."
The Department for Education also said an additional 7,000 air cleaning units will be provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces.
But a leading Leeds academic, who is running a trial of air cleaning equipment in 30 schools, said there are a number of “practical issues” involved in such a roll-out.
Prof Mark Mon-Williams, of the University of Leeds, said some of the issues include whether a classroom has enough plug sockets for cleaning units, how many are needed, the cleaning of filters, and their delivery.
He said: “There are a number of different practical issues that really need to be understood in order for the rollout to be effective,” adding: “The more units you put in the lower the cost, but the cost is still substantial so the question is this – is this the best investment to make?”
He said: “Ventilation is a fantastic tool but the question is, can we supplement that with these other air cleaning technologies?”
The Government said the latest recommendations will remain in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are scheduled to expire. At this point it will be reviewed.
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 for schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption."
*Fears were raised yesterday of the availability of lateral flow tests for pupils’ and schools staff’s twice-weekly testing, given the national shortages.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT said: “"If lateral flow tests are to be critical to enabling pupils and staff to return to school quickly then there must be a ready supply available for schools as they go back in January and throughout the term."
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL said there are currently no concerns over the supply of lateral flow tests to schools.
He said: "With regards to the availability of lateral flow test kits, schools and colleges are able to order them through an online ordering system, and were advised to place orders before the Christmas holidays if more kits were needed for the start of term.
"These orders are due to be delivered in the week commencing January 3, and we have not been notified by the Government of any issues affecting supply."
Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United. With a digital subscription, you'll see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe