The government has announced the recommendation of face coverings to be worn by pupils when the new term starts as it attempts to counter spiralling Omicron cases.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the government was taking steps to ‘bolster support for schools’ in an effort to minimise disruption when students return after the Christmas break.
Under the move, face coverings would be required until January 26 when the current national Plan B Covid measures run out.
Following the announcement, Councillor Suzy Horton, cabinet member for education and children in Portsmouth, said: ‘It is pleasing to see the safety of pupils, staff and the community are being considered by this decision for mask wearing in secondary schools.
‘It’s also pleasing to see it being discussed and acted on a few days before schools return after Christmas rather than the day after like we saw last year.
‘What is clear is that this pandemic is far from over and the unpredictability of it is going to be with us for a long time.
‘What is also clear is that there is a united view that children’s school experience is an essential part of their current lives and their future and the government needs to work with schools to ensure they have all the necessary means to make that happen. This means all schools and early years settings.
‘The key to schools remaining open is having teachers in school and it is becoming evident that staff shortages are hitting crisis point.’
As well as wearing masks - which had already been recommended in communal areas for older students and staff - the government announced the supply of 7,000 new air purifiers for areas of schools where good ventilation is difficult.
The supply has been branded ‘completely inadequate’ by NEU teaching union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted, who said that with ‘over 300,000 classrooms in England they (the government) have failed to provide an effective solution’.
Speaking on face masks Dr Bousted said the move was ‘overdue’ and ‘should be a requirement’ not merely a recommendation.
The union boss also She added: ‘It is hard to see how Ofsted will function without the services of serving head teachers. Rather than limping along, Ofsted should suspend all inspections other than safeguarding concerns.
‘Given the current, sky-high rates of infection, every school will be significantly affected by Covid. The focus should be on the essential aim of providing education continuity for as many pupils as possible, not on jumping through Ofsted hoops.’
Cllr Horton said the government cannot take a ‘one size fits all’ response to helping schools and ‘needs to focus on high level decisions about Covid secure practices’.
‘(The government) needs to support and trust the profession, working with the local authority, to come up with pragmatic responses on a school by school basis,’ she said.
‘What schools need is access to the right equipment, including air-cleaning units - 7,000 will not be enough - help with on-site testing and other public health issues, financial support for staffing where teacher absence is an issue and the pressure of Ofsted looming removed from their daily pressure.’
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The councillor went on to praise the efforts of schools despite the struggles they face. ‘Schools in Portsmouth have been absolutely amazing over the last few years, always adapting and surviving, even when the government decisions have U-turned, when promised equipment has not materialised and when they felt unsafe being on the frontline,’ she said.
‘They have constantly balanced infection control versus the education of their pupils and they, quite rightly, are focusing on maintaining the best possible standard of education in the unpredictable months ahead. I don’t need Ofsted to tell me this.’