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Scientists and public health experts join with unions to demand Covid-19 protection in schools to continue

SCIENTISTS, public health experts and parents have joined with unions to demand that essential Covid-19 safety protocols are retained in schools as lockdown restrictions are eased. 

The National Education Union, Unite, Unison, GMB and NASUWT published an open letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today, expressing grave concern at reported plans to stop secondary school pupils in England having to wear masks in classrooms from May 17.  

The letter, co-signed by other education unions, more than 400 parents and nearly 20 leading scientists and public health experts, warns that a change in policy when rates of the virus are still significant “would have consequences for the health of our children, parents [and] communities.”

The latest Office for National Statistics data shows a marked rise in coronavirus infections among pupils over March, after schools opened for three weeks before the Easter break.

The letter, also endorsed by some members of the independent Sage scientific advisory group, points to Office for National Statistics estimates that as many 43,000 children and 110,000 educational staff across the country could now be living with “long Covid” as symptoms persist for five weeks or more.

While research into the condition is still ongoing, scientists warn that these figures could severely underestimate the problem because current data only tracks 12 potential symptoms, despite some experts identifying over 30 recognised symptoms.  

Increasing infection among pupils can put household members and the wider community at risk, with parents of school-age children already found to be at higher risk of infection and hospitalisation.

As a result, face coverings are used widely in both primary and secondary school classrooms in most countries in Europe, the United States and south-east Asia. 

Parents United UK’s head of support Catherine Wilson said that the removal of masks “contradicts the available health and safety information we have regarding Covid-19 and threatens to increase the volume of infections.”

Queen Mary University of London epidemiologist and co-signatory Dr Deepti Gurdasani called for face coverings to be retained in secondary schools until at least June to help mitigate risk.

“Scientists, school staff, parents and students are alarmed. We do not want a repeat of past mistakes,” she said. 

“That’s why we’ve come together to urge the government to consider the global and national evidence on current infection rates in schools.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “It is expected that face coverings will no longer be required in classrooms at step three of the road map, which will be no earlier than May 17.

“The lifting of further restrictions at step 3 will follow a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates, and all other school safety measures, including regular asymptomatic testing, will remain in place.”

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