In the UK, face masks have been compulsory in all public spaces almost since the very start of the pandemic. But previously, children haven't had to wear them at school - in the corridors or in the classrooms.
Now with another lockdown in full force, following a second wave of coronavirus, many children, parents and teachers alike are wondering whether face masks will be compulsory in UK secondary schools.
They’ve become a must-have to enter supermarkets, pharmacies and all other essential and non-essential shops and hospitality spaces over the last few months, with more rules coming into place recently that required people to wear them on more occasions.
It follows the initial advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says, “Masks are a key measure to suppress transmission and save lives. Masks reduce potential exposure risk from an infected person whether they have symptoms or not. People wearing masks are protected from getting infected. Masks also prevent onward transmission when worn by a person who is infected.
‘Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive ‘Do it all!’approach including: physical distancing, avoiding crowded, closed and close-contact settings, improving ventilation, cleaning hands, covering sneezes and coughs, and more.’
WHO have also suggested that all children over the age of 12 should wear face masks to contribute to this, in line with the same guidance given to adults.
So now under the new government lockdown rules, do children have to wear face masks in UK secondary schools?
Do children have to wear masks in schools in England?
Now England is in a nationwide lockdown once again, all older children in schools will have to wear face masks. Under the updated guidance, announced on Wednesday, all staff and students from Year 7 upwards are now required to wear face masks in communal spaces outside of the classroom. This includes in the hallways, corridors and any other areas where social distancing cannot be maintained.
It was already a requirement for secondary school pupils living in the ‘high’ risk and ‘very high’ risk areas of the three tier lockdown system, but now the rules will be applicable to all areas of the country.
Do children have to wear masks in schools in Wales?
The rules are different in Wales, however, as the country is not under the same lockdown restrictions as England. As schools and any other type of childcare setting are not public spaces, the government is allowing secondary schools to decide themselves whether they will make face masks compulsory in communal settings within schools.
On their website, the government has said that it will largely be based on the risk assessment in a particular area and the “context of local circumstances.”
This means that unless told otherwise by the children’s school, face masks are not essential in schools in Wales.
Do children have to wear face masks in Scotland?
As of late August, all children in secondary schools in Scotland have been required to wear face masks when walking to lessons, in corridors or through communal areas where social distancing is hard to maintain.
School children in Year 7 and above are also already required to wear face coverings on public transport used exclusively by the school, which brings the ruling into line with other measures in place on public transport throughout Scotland.
However, face masks are not required in the classroom in schools in Scotland as they “have an impact on learning and teaching” and better social distancing can be maintained. Teachers and students in this environment will have to wear a face mask only if they aren’t able to keep the 2 metre distance, under the rules in Scotland.
Do children have to wear masks in schools in Northern Ireland?
Much like in Scotland, in Northern Ireland pupils have been required to wear a face masks in secondary schools since August.
The announcement in the summer was a U-turn for the government, who initially said that it was not a necessary precaution but then confirmed it was a good measure to take to prevent the spread of coronavirus in educational settings.
Upon making the announcement, Education Minister Peter Weir said, “The current public health advice is that the use of face coverings provides some benefits,”
“However, it is not a replacement for frequent hand washing, social distancing where possible, covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and regular cleaning of surfaces.
“It is also important to remember that evidence suggests that the risk of transmission in schools is relatively low compared to some other settings.”
From this month, pupils will also be required to wear face masks on all school transport.
At what age do children have to wear face masks?
The new advice published by WHO, which has informed the decision to make face masks compulsory in lockdown areas, covers three different age groups. Currently, only children in UK secondary schools aged 12 or over will be required to wear face masks.
For those aged between six and 11 years old, it depends on other factors such as the rate of virus transmission and whether the child is coming into contact with high-risk individuals. WHO has also stressed that adult supervision for this age group is necessary, to help children take off and put on their masks securely.
Children under the age of five are not required to wear face masks in any environment.
Do teachers have to wear face masks?
The same rules apply to teachers, as with WHO says, “In areas where there is widespread transmission, all adults under the age of 60 and who are in general good health should wear fabric masks when they cannot guarantee at least a one-metre distance from others.”
“This is particularly important for adults working with children who may have close contact with children and one another.”
Where do children have to wear masks in school?
While face masks will have to be worn by everyone in corridors and other spaces where it is difficult to maintain social distancing, it is ultimately up to the schools to decide where this will be, based on “their particular circumstances”.
The Department of Education has no plans to make face masks mandatory at secondary schools outside local lockdown locations, however.
What are other countries doing?
While the change in guidelines may seem quick for those of us in the UK, rules about wearing masks in schools elsewhere in Europe have long since been in place.
Children and teachers in France will all have to wear face masks, even when a distance of one metre can be enforced, which means that masks will be worn as teachers are taking lessons.
In Italy, classes will be taken outdoors where possible and teachers will have to wear face masks and shields. Students will also have to wear masks and a distance of one metre will be maintained at all times, meaning that class sizes will be smaller.
For those over the age of six in Spain, masks will be compulsory on all school transport and will be required for students and teachers at all times where a 1.5 metre distance can’t be maintained.
The rules are a little more relaxed in Germany, with some states making wearing face masks compulsory at school for children and others not.
While in the Netherlands, it has not been made compulsory to wear face masks but some schools are doing so out of choice.