Schools that ended the requirement for pupils to wear face coverings this month, in line with government guidance, are reinstating it again because of surges in Covid cases.
The government rescinded the requirement for masks in secondary school classrooms in England on 20 January and since 27 January they have no longer been compulsory in communal indoor spaces either. But a number of schools that complied with the change in the rules are having to reintroduce them a week later because of outbreaks in infections.
In some areas, including Enfield in north London, Calderdale in West Yorkshire, and Hertfordshire, public health teams are now recommending that masks be temporarily reinstated in schools where there are significant outbreaks.
At least nine education authorities are also advising that masks remain in place in the schools’ communal areas, despite the change in national guidance. In south-west London, a number of secondaries told parents on Friday that a rise in cases meant some year groups would have to resume wearing face coverings indoors and take daily lateral flow tests.
Official figures published by the Department for Education last week show that Covid-related pupil absence in England has jumped by 100,000 in two weeks.
A total of 415,000 children – just over 5% of the state school intake – were absent on 20 January, up from 3.9% on 6 January. More than three-quarters of absent pupils had tested positive for Covid.
At nearly a quarter of state schools, more than 15% of teachers and leaders were off work. In total, 9% of heads and teachers – 47,000 – were absent on 20 January, up from 44,000 two weeks previously. A similar proportion of teaching assistants and other staff were also out of school.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is very likely that we are going to see increased disruption in schools across the next weeks, with cases rising among both primary and secondary pupils. The government has acted prematurely in removing face masks and has acted tardily in providing ventilation solutions.”
The government has been accused of acting tardily in providing ventilation solutions. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
The decision on masks in schools comes as new research underlines just how significantly reinfections are fuelling the pandemic.
Before Omicron appeared, protection against symptomatic reinfection for previous variants – such as Delta – was above 90%. But this fell to 56% with Omicron, meaning those who have suffered once previously are much more likely to suffer again, according to a study by researchers at the Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar research centre.
Scientists have been trying to establish how much of the Omicron wave has been driven by reinfections and on Monday the government’s Covid dashboard will begin publishing data about reinfections in the UK.
“We know that reinfections are much more common with Omicron,” said Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia. “But there are a number of issues – are they less severe? The balance of evidence is that they are less severe than primary infections.”
New research by scientists at the UK Health Security Agency conducted during the Alpha wave showed that reinfected people were much less likely to die, with 61% fewer deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
Last week, the React study published its latest report which included data that nearly two thirds of 3,582 people who had been infected with Omicron said they had previously had Covid. The researchers from Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori cautioned that not all of those were necessarily reinfections – some may be people who had received a positive PCR test in its study who were still getting over a recent infection.
Deciding what counts as a reinfection is part of the problem with attempts to measure it. When the Covid dashboard starts to include reinfection data, repeat positive cases will only be counted separately as a reinfection if there is a gap of at least 90 days. That means that an unknown proportion of people who were infected during the third wave this winter with Delta, and then subsequently contracted Omicron, will not be included as new infections.
“Normally reinfections aren’t a problem, but it’s a becoming a problem because reinfections are occurring rather more frequently with Omicron than before,” Hunter said.
“So when we’ve got the reinfection data, is that going to change what we understand about the direction of travel of this epidemic? Will adding reinfections make it look like, actually, it’s not levelled off and dipping again, but increasing still rapidly?
“Or will it mean that, actually, a lot of those reinfections occurred at the peak, and they’re dropping even faster than we thought?”