With some schools opening their doors in the coming weeks, many are wondering if they are able to enforce a requirement to use masks to protect staff and pupils alike.
A school has a duty as an employer and an occupier of premises to take reasonable steps to protect the health, safety and welfare of its staff in accordance with your overarching duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) and/or the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations.
You are required to undertake a coronavirus (COVID-19) risk assessment and to consider the risks, likelihood of exposure to COVID-19 and appropriate control measures. What is appropriate is a decision to be taken by the school taking account of relevant factors and advice.
Guidance from Public Health England and the Department for Education will be persuasive, but it is non-statutory and not therefore determinative.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed to protect the wearer and should be a control measure of last resort which is used to reduce the risk. It is important to make a distinction between masks and coverings in this context. There is no convincing evidence that coverings protect the wearer, albeit they reduce risk to the community if used correctly.
The latest guidance states that masks are not generally recommended in schools.
In relation to coverings, the guidance states that: "schools and other education or childcare settings should therefore not require staff, children and learners to wear face coverings. Changing habits, cleaning and hygiene are effective measures in controlling the spread of the virus".
Insofar as masks are concerned, "the majority of staff in education settings will not require PPE beyond what they would normally need for their work, even if they are not always able to maintain a distance of 2 metres from others.
PPE is only needed in a very small number of cases including:
- children, young people and students whose care routinely already involves the use of PPE due to their intimate care needs should continue to receive their care in the same way
- if a child, young person or other learner becomes unwell with symptoms of coronavirus while in their setting and needs direct personal care until they can return home."
It is open to a school to depart from the guidance if it has good reason, for example if your own risk assessments justify this, or where health and safety law requires it. If your risk assessment identifies a specific need for PPE (and we recommend that you distinguish between masks and face coverings here), then you are able to require staff to wear PPE. This should be provided and funded by the school.
With regards to allowing staff to wear PPE if they wish, it is open to you to permit staff to wear PPE should they wish to do so, but this should be considered on a case-by-case basis, as it may be confusing or intimidating to students, and is not generally recommended.
As set out above the current guidance states that schools should not require children and learners to wear face coverings or face masks, but it is open to the school to risk assess matters and to determine otherwise as set out above.
Face coverings (or any form of medical mask where instructed to be used for specific clinical reasons) should not be worn in any circumstance by those who may not be able to handle them as directed (for example, young children, or those with special educational needs or disabilities) as it may inadvertently increase the risk of transmission.
Older children are likely to better understand the need for and to enforce social distancing such that the risks are adequately controlled without the need for face masks or coverings. If the school decides that these are needed for safety reasons then the school will need to provide them.
The school is entitled to take account of the scarcity of CE-approved masks in its decision-making and to the lack of scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of face coverings.
Unless the school's risk assessment determines that a particular child, or group of children, wear face masks or coverings, there is no obligation on the school to provide them and it is open to the school to ask parents to provide these in that case.
If parents want to send their child to school with a face covering, we would recommend that you consider whether or not to permit this and, if permitted teach children in their safe and effective use.