Fears over the Omicron coronavirus variant have prompted renewed restrictions around the world – but confusion in the U.K over wearing masks in schools has exposed a worrying lack of leadership.
While many countries around the world mandated the continued use of masks in the classroom – or even have yet to return to in-person learning – students in England started the school year back in the classroom and with no masks.
But from today, in response to the appearance of the more transmissible – and potentially vaccine resistant – Omicron coronavirus variant, the U.K. Government has reintroduced the requirement for students to wear masks in secondary schools, for children aged 11 and above.
However, far from setting out clear guidance, the Government has been accused of muddying the waters.
According to the guidance, the Government recommends “that face coverings should be worn by pupils, staff and adult visitors when moving around the premises, outside of classrooms, such as in corridors and communal areas.”
But these communal areas apparently do not include classrooms, the areas where students spend most of their time at school and in close proximity to others, for the guidance adds: “We do not advise that pupils and staff wear face coverings in classrooms.”
This has prompted widespread dismay among school principals, who fear that the “recommendation” may make mask wearing harder to enforce, and failing to extend it to the classroom sends mixed messages to students and parents alike.
Not surprisingly, many school leaders have taken it upon themselves to require students to wear masks in classrooms as well as corridors.
Indeed, it is not hard to see the latest guidance as an attempt to shift responsibility for imposing greater restrictions onto school leaders.
And it is far from the only occasion where the U.K. Government’s leadership through the pandemic has been found wanting, with schools often taking the brunt of it.
The first 18 months of the pandemic were characterized by a series of mis-steps, from delays in cancelling exams and chaos over awarding grades to threatening legal action against plans to close schools only to order them to close days later.
Many school leaders may have thought the worst was over when Boris Johnson sacked Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary responsible, and replaced him with Nadhim Zahawi, the minister in charge of the vaccine roll-out.
But since then, the Government has also been slow to start vaccinating under-18s, waiting until the new school year was well underway, perhaps concerned about widespread pushback against vaccinating children, whereas the evidence suggests it has been widely taken up.
Schools were also told this week to prepare to test all students on their return after the Christmas break.
This has prompted Geoff Barton, leader of the union representing many school leaders, to call for more support to organize and staff testing stations, as well as additional funding to cover for staff absence and a national campaign to encourage home testing.
So it’s no surprise that two in five school leaders are considering leaving the profession within the next five years.
Whether this translates into a leadership crisis in schools depends on many factors, including the state of the wider labour market, but there is no sign that the leadership crisis at the very top is any closer to resolution.