The Department for Education has set out the evidence behind its decision to temporarily reintroduce face masks in school, college and providers’ classrooms.
The move, communicated to education leaders this weekend, is a particularly sensitive one.
Ministers have faced a backlash from Covid restriction sceptics, with former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith claiming that the data showing imposing face coverings in classrooms was “premature”.
But they have also faced sustained pressure from others, such as staff and unions, to reintroduce face coverings to make classrooms and teaching spaces safer.
Today the DfE has published a summary of the evidence behind its decision. FE Week takes a look …
DfE study suggests positive impact – but data ‘limited’
A DfE study in October found the Covid absence rate across schools using face coverings fell quicker compared to those who were not using masks.
However, the data has limitations. It is based on data sent by schools to the DfE through the education settings form.
It looks at 123 schools and is pre-Omicron, which is more infectious than the previous Delta variant.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi claimed on talkRADIO that these schools had “face mask policies in the classroom”. He claimed he was the “evidence-led secretary of state”.
But DfE’s report says the data “does not differentiate between whether face coverings were used in classrooms or communal areas”.
The preliminary analysis found that education providers not using masks saw their average absence rate fall by 1.7 percentage points from 5.3 per cent on October 1, to 3.6 per cent three weeks later.
In providers that did use face coverings, absence fell by 2.3 percentage points from 5.3 per cent to 3 per cent.
DfE accepts there is a “level of statistical uncertainty around the result” and that “further work should be done”.
Professor Stephen Gorard, director of the Durham University evidence centre for education, said the analysis was “good enough” to support the use of facemasks in classrooms and was “explicit about its necessary limitations”.
He added the analysis suggested a “small effect size on infections from wearing masks” which “might save some lives as well as absences”.
DfE said it is working to make the underlying data and analysis available to an external peer reviewer for independent replication of results.
Questions around US masks study
DfE says there are scientific studies which look at the link between Covid and the use of face coverings in education settings, but they are “not conclusive”.
It cites several United States studies which “generally find higher rates of Covid-19 in schools without mask requirements, compared to those with mask requirements”.
One study in Arizona published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that education settings without mask requirements were 3.5 times more likely to have outbreaks between July and August last year.
The CDC has recommended that all children ages 2 and above should wear coverings indoors at school – different to the UK’s response.
However, some have discredited this study claiming it is unreliable and flawed.
A second study showed US counties where schools required masks also had less transmission of the virus in the community.
In November 2020, the UK Health and Security Agency looked at mask evidence in education and summer camp settings.
DfE said these three studies were “observational” and had “limitations” so the results “provide less direct evidence of effectiveness of face coverings than randomised control trials”.
Results were “mixed” but “taken together” they supported “the conclusion that the use of face coverings in schools can contribute to reducing” transmission.
In the run up to Christmas, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) told the government it may be necessary to consider the wearing of face coverings in primary school classrooms, where “the balance of risks and benefits did not previously support it”.
But the government decided to keep primary pupils exempt, citing other measures to reduce transmission such as staff testing and improved ventilation.
Education leaders’ communication concerns
The DfE said it will work with the UKHSA to “carefully monitor the data and the evidence” and continue to “strike a balance” between managing transmission risk and reducing disruption to education.
Back in April, when face masks were used in the classroom after lockdown, a DfE survey found that almost all leaders and teachers – 94 per cent – thought wearing face coverings made communication with students more difficult.
Of these, 59 per cent said it made it “a lot more” difficult.
The World Health Organisation said for children with hearing loss, mask wearing may present learning barriers and could miss learning.
The DfE said it is “therefore important” to continue to offer flexibility to schools either not to use face coverings or to use transparent face coverings.
Zahawi told MPs today he has commissioned DfE staff to further research “the negative impacts of face coverings on education”.
He said masks were “distracting for children at a time when they should be concentrating or listening to their teachers”.
But overall he said they are a “sensible, pragmatic and proportionate thing to do” and hopes “that data will allow us to ditch masks in class” from January 26.