13:30, September 04 184 0 theguardian.com

2020-09-04 13:30:05
Teachers tell parents in England to ignore 'baseless' letters on face masks

Teaching unions have told parents to ignore letters circulating on social media that threaten legal action against schools requiring pupils to wear face masks or use hand sanitiser.

Lawyers say the threats contained in the letters are baseless, and that the latest government guidance gives schools the power to require masks to be worn when appropriate.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are aware of template letters being circulated on social media for parents to send to schools objecting to any requirement for pupils to wear face coverings.

“We do not think the tone of these letters is helpful and we would encourage parents who are concerned about policies on face coverings to discuss the matter with their school.”

Laura Berman, a partner at the law firm Stone King, said she and her colleagues were contacted by around 10 state schools in England with copies of letters on Thursday that used very similar wording.

“They are quite threatening letters, and they contain statements that who knows whether they are true, so schools are desperately trying to do the right thing and want to know how best to respond,” said Berman, who described some of the claims as “ridiculous”.

One of the notices sent by a parent, and seen by Stone King, states:

I am deeply concerned at the potential for detrimental health issues from mask wearing, and I serve this Notice of Liability on you to inform you I DO NOT CONSENT to my child being compelled to wear a mask at school and will, if any harm or injury arises from same, hold you personally liable for damages and or injury.”

The letter goes on to make a false claim about the effects of wearing a mask.

Some of the notices raise fears over the treatment of children displaying coronavirus symptoms, stating:

There are powers within the Coronavirus Act 2020 to detain and take away anyone deemed to be infected and I say again, I DO NOT CONSENT to this abuse of unlawful power.

Another section claims the parent did not allow their child to use the school’s hand sanitiser and would supply their own:

I would like to make you aware that some hand sanitisers through excessive use can contribute to eczema, dermatitis and the active chemicals can be absorbed in through the skin and adversely affect health in the long term.

Berman said it was unlikely that schools would object if pupils supplied their own sanitiser, or used soap and water.

McCulloch said: “In areas where local restrictions apply, government guidance is that face coverings should be worn in communal areas in secondary schools. The guidance otherwise gives flexibility to secondary schools over whether to require face coverings in communal areas according to their context, such as the extent to which the layout of the school entails staff and students mixing in close proximity as they move around.

“Where face coverings are required this will be because the school has assessed that this will help to mitigate the risk of transmission of coronavirus in communal areas.

“We would ask that parents respect and support the policies of their school.”

Berman said her advice to schools was that they had “clear discretion” over mask-wearing policies for pupils and staff.

“Schools absolutely have that discretion. If they decide to implement it, if they decide that’s right for their community, then they can impose that policy,” Berman said.

While the government’s policy states that no child should be excluded for not wearing a mask, Berman said she would advise schools to make face covering rules part of a school’s behaviour and health and safety policies.

“Our advice would be to tie that policy into their behaviour policy so that if it is not adhered to then any breach of the policy can be sanctioned in the normal way. Schools will have to make adjustment to the policies for those who might have difficulty wearing a mask,” Berman said.

On Friday the JCB Academy, a secondary school in north Staffordshire, became the first school in England to close owing to a confirmed Covid-19 case since the start of the new school year.

The Department for Education and the Cabinet Office are said to have been aware of the misinformation circulating on social media, and the government’s rebuttal unit has been challenging posts on Facebook and other outlets.

A DfE spokesperson said: “In local lockdown areas, children in year 7 and above should wear face coverings in communal spaces and corridors. Outside of local lockdown areas face coverings won’t be necessary in schools, though schools will have the flexibility to introduce this if they believe it is right in their specific circumstances. Face coverings should not be required in the classroom as they hinder communication and pupils’ education.”