I’m a parent in of two boys aged 14 and 12. My youngest son has asthma and vocal chord dysfunction (VCD), whilst my eldest son has no underlying health conditions. My youngest son was due to start high school in year 7 and my eldest son was starting year 10. Prior to school term starting I contacted the high school to voice my concerns regarding full return for all pupils in September. I was asked to come into school during the week exam results were released and have a chat with the Head of Year for year 7.
I went along for the informal chat. I wore my face covering (as I was in an indoor setting with a member of another household) the teacher I met with was not wearing a face covering. The teacher explained the changes the school were making to ensure that pupils returning would be kept safe. These were; keeping bubbles of pupils separate from other bubbles, installing sanitation stations, removal of soft furnishings from classrooms, seating pupils in rows facing forward in classrooms, opening windows, some specific measures around PE (outdoor primarily and no requirement for pupils to get changed into PE kit).
I asked a few questions. I was not allowed to take a photo of the classroom, but I estimated it was no more than 8m x 8m. I asked how many pupils would be in a class? I was told 30. I asked how many pupils will be in a bubble? I was told “it’ll be a year group”. So, a year group of 300 in this case as the school has 1640 pupils aged between 11 and 18. I asked why were the pupils to be seated facing forward? The answer “that’s what the Government Guidance says we need to do.”
So, then I asked what is being done to mitigate the risk of aerosol transmission, when a small space is to be occupied by 30 members of different households. I was told “the windows will be open.” When I suggested that that idea will be fun in Newcastle in November, the teacher laughed and said, “we’ll let them keep their coats on”.
I then asked whether my sons will be allowed to wear a face covering in classrooms. Both of my sons have been happy to wear in all other indoor situations where there are members of other households, so I know that they have no issues with wearing. I was told, “No, Government Guidance says they’re not allowed in classrooms.” I explained that isn’t correct, the Government Guidance says they should be avoided in classrooms.
From that initial meeting I then sought a meeting with the Executive Principal and newly appointed Principal. I outlined my reasons for concern. I asked for the Trust to allow freedom of choice for young people to wear a recognised safety measure to mitigate the risk of aerosol transmission, when sharing a small indoor space with up to 30 members of different households. (As per the public health guidance for all indoor settings where households mix.)
Fast Forward a bit of the very long saga I was told by the Principal, of the school that my sons attend, that he was willing to remove a barrier to return to school by granting ‘permission for now’ for both of my sons to wear a mask in classrooms. I requested that all pupils should be allowed to wear a face mask whilst sharing an indoor space with members of other households and where social distancing wasn’t possible. I was then informed if I wanted to continue discussions regarding ‘allowing freedom of choice for all pupils to wear a recognised safety measure in classrooms’ that I would have to enter the formal school complaint process.
This process involved 3 stages. My complaint was not upheld at stage 1 or stage 2 of the process. Both responses stated the reason was that the Trust were ‘following DfE guidance’. My stage 3 complaints hearing was scheduled for January 8th and I submitted a comprehensive dossier of evidence along with personal supporting letters from a GP, a member of SAGE and a member of Independent SAGE on the 15th of December. On Saturday the 2nd of January I received a text from my sons school to say; “With immediate effect, we strongly recommend that students and staff wear their face mask at all times, including in the classroom”.
My stage 3 complaint hearing went ahead as scheduled on the 8th of January and was upheld with effect from the 2nd of January. The panel of judges (from the board of Trustees) agreed that the decision not to uphold my complaint at stage 1 and stage 2 was justified and that it was the new emerging variant that had prompted the Trust to alter their stance and recommend mask use in all indoor areas.
It has been an exhausting process, I have felt bullied and gaslighted throughout. It shouldn’t have had to be so difficult to obtain permission to be allowed to use a recognised, scientific safety measure that is required in all other indoor settings where households mix. The reason it has been so difficult is due to the guidance document published by the DfE which still, to this day, has not provided any scientific, peer-reviewed evidence to support its statement below (emphasis added by me)
“Based on current evidence and the measures that schools are already putting in place, such as the system of controls and consistent bubbles, face coverings will not be necessary in the classroom even where social distancing is not possible. Face coverings could have a negative impact of teaching and their use in the classroom should be avoided.”
It is essential that all recognised scientific mitigation measures are implemented in our schools before a full return to in-person education is considered. It isn’t morally or legally acceptable that schools are exempt from the Hands/Face/Space/Replace mitigations that apply to all other indoor settings.