Teaching unions today demanded secondary school children must keep wearing face masks in the classroom until the end of term.
England is set to dump the troublesome rule from the next lockdown easing in less than two weeks, amid concerns over how it affects pupils education.
But the National Education Union (NEU) among others has now insisted in an open letter that the order should be extended until June 21.
They claim lifting the measure too soon will have ‘consequences’ for the health of pupils and their parents.
It comes after official figures suggested almost nine in ten secondary schools suffered no Covid outbreaks just a week after they reopened.
Trade unions had protested that year groups should return in stages, claiming that bringing them back all at once could make an outbreak more likely.
But twice weekly swabbing showed there was only a small rise in cases, which experts said was to be expected because people were mixing more.
ALMOST 85 PER CENT OF SECONDARY SCHOOLS HAD NO COVID CASES AFTER THEY OPENED, FIGURES SUGGEST
Almost nine in 10 secondary schools in England had no coronavirus cases after they reopened, official figures suggest.
Surveillance data showed only nine of 80 schools surveyed had spotted one infected pupil or staff member in the fortnight ending March 31. Four saw at least two cases, according to the Office for National Statistics report.
Almost 10,000 secondary teachers and pupils were swabbed for the study, which is carried out regularly to track the spread of the disease in schools.
Just 0.34 per cent of pupils tested positive — compared to 1.2 per cent in December, when Covid was spreading rapidly in the community. Only one in every 500 teachers were infected in the last round of testing, down from one in 60 before Christmas.
Public Health England bosses said the data was ‘reassuring’.
It comes after teaching unions warned Number 10’s ‘big bang’ reopening of schools on March 8 — the first step in the ultra-cautious roadmap back to normality — was ‘madness’ and risked an explosion in cases.
Unions called for year groups to be sent back in phased stages, claiming the mass return could put teachers at risk from the virus.
The NEU and NASUWT submitted the letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, alongside support staff unions Unite, Unison and GMB.
In the message they alleged the coverings were ‘an essential part of the wider system of control in schools’ and that they should be required for longer.
They wrote: ‘To strip these necessary protections, when there are already too few mitigation measures in schools, and when rates of Covid are still significant, would have consequences for the health of our children and their parents as well as their communities.’
Schools have a number of other measures in place to prevent an outbreak of the virus, including social distancing and keeping year groups separated.
Office for National statistics data showed 84 per cent of 80 secondary schools it sampled faced no outbreaks between March 15 to 30.
Around 0.33 per cent of pupils and 0.32 per cent of staff in the schools were infected with the virus. This was far below the rates in November and December, when it was above one per cent for both categories.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said last week he hoped that pupils would no longer have to wear face masks in secondary schools and colleges in England from mid-May.
But he added the decision on whether to lift the precautionary measure when further easing of social contact limits indoors are confirmed, which will be no earlier than May 17, will depend on ‘the data’.
The Department for Education (DfE) has said it expects to remove the requirement on secondary school pupils and staff to wear masks in class as part of the next stage of lifting the lockdown.
Any changes to the policy will be confirmed with one week’s notice following a review of the latest data on infection and vaccination rates.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, who is among the signatories to the letter, said: ‘Scientists, school staff, parents and students are alarmed.
‘We do not want a repeat of past mistakes that previously led to new waves, higher deaths, and prolonged lockdowns.
‘That’s why we’ve come together to urge the Government to consider the global and national evidence on current infection rates in schools.
‘Face coverings should be continued in schools after May 17, with review prior to the next stage of the road map on June 21, to avoid the risk of new outbreaks.’
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.’