The directors of public health for the Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen local authority areas made the joint recommendation late yesterday, amid growing concern about the spread of the Indian variant of Covid in the county.
Pupils had been expecting to be able to remove their masks in classrooms and communal areas next week for the first time since schools fully reopened on 8th March.
The local policy was changed just days after the Lancashire districts of the National Education Union wrote to education and public health bosses at County Hall calling for a “more cautious approach” to the relaxing of the requirement for face coverings.
Schools have been contacted and advised that their pupils should continue to wear masks until at least 21st June, the date that is supposed to mark the final step on the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, at which point all legal restrictions will be lifted.
Lancashire’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, said it was a “very tough recommendation to make”.
He added: "But the increase in prevalence of this variant in the North West means we need to take some prudent steps to help reduce its spread. Wearing face coverings in schools and colleges for a few weeks longer will help to contain this and ensure the variant doesn't take hold.
“This is vital so we can build on the good work to keep levels of infection, hospital admissions and the numbers of people becoming seriously ill low.
"We want to do all we can to keep our schools and colleges open. The classroom is the best place for children to learn. Wearing face coverings for just a few weeks longer until we control the situation is an effective way of helping us to do this.
"This is local health protection guidance and ultimately the decision on usage of face coverings in individual schools and colleges will be made by headteachers and principals.
"Thank you to headteachers, principals, schools, colleges and parents for their support so far. The county council's public health team will continue to work with Public Health England, the NHS and other local authorities and agencies to monitor the situation and advise schools and colleges accordingly," Dr. Karunanithi added. Dr. Karunanithi said.
Ian Watkinson, the Lancashire representative on the NEU’s national executive committee - and chair of the organisation's health and safety group - welcomed the move to retain masks in class across most of Lancashire.
“Now is not the time to relax any Covid-19 safety measures in our schools and colleges and the directors of public health should be applauded for once again putting the health and safety of Lancashire children, young people and communities first - and ahead of the totally inappropriate one-size-fits all government strategies.
“Curbing the spread of the Indian variant has to be a priority and we sincerely hope that all North West local authorities follow their lead,” said Mr. Watkinson.
Blackpool Council plans to follow the national policy and allow face coverings to be removed from Monday. The authority has been approached for comment.