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But amid fears of staff shortages Nadhim Zahawi has told headteachers to consider merging classes or sending groups of children home if the number of staff off work due to Covid reaches critical levels.
He said it was key to keep children in the classroom as much as possible due to the mental health impacts. He told Sky News: “The priority is to keep schools open.”
It follows the announcement that masks would be recommended in the classroom for secondary school pupils, as well as twice-weekly testing.
He added: “The testing, the staffing support we’re putting in place and the ventilation is going to make a big difference to schools.
“We monitor staff absenteeism, we’re running at about eight percent last year. If that rises further then we look at things like merging classes, teaching in bigger numbers.”
Conservative MPs, one of the Government’s scientific advisers, charities and parent groups have all warned of the long-term impact of masks on children’s mental health.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said data showed imposing masks in classrooms was “premature”.
Prof Russell Viner, an adviser to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), called for the order to be kept under constant review as masks affected young people’s ability to learn and socialise.
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Mr Zahawi promised 7,000 more air-cleaning units on top of the 1,000 already announced and 350,000 CO2 monitors for schools.
All 12 to 15-year-olds are being urged to get both vaccine doses. Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson said almost two million students aged 12-17 remain completely unjabbed.
She said the Government had missed “the chance to get ahead of the virus, and is letting down our children”.
COMMENT BY MOLLY KINGSLEY
There is no more visible manifestation of our last 20 months’ betrayal of children than the sight of a masked child.
At a point in the pandemic when most adults have been triple vaccinated, most children have immunity and when the virus for the majority of adults let alone children is no worse than a cold, there is no credible justification for this intervention.
The evidence base for face coverings in schools has always been weak.
More fundamentally, with a boosted adult population and a mild variant circulating, focusing on transmission in schools is misguided.
This is especially so given there is now ample evidence of the significant harms caused by masks in class.
In August 2020 the PM called masks in lessons “nonsensical”; DfE acknowledged in January 2021 that masks “may inhibit teaching and learning” and any number of experts have said similar.
DfE hides behind the fact that no formal harm assessment has been carried out, but studies indicate the harms associated with prolonged mask wearing.
Claiming ignorance two years in would be risible were the consequences not so serious – according to iCAN 1.5 million children can now not speak at an age-appropriate level and one in six children are thought to have a mental-health disorder.
The real reason we are here is all to do with politics and the weakness of ministers in the face of unions baying for ever more impediments on children’s schooling.
- Molly Kingsley – Founder of UsForThem
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