SECONDARY school pupils in parts of northern England will have to keep wearing masks in class as fears over the Indian Covid variant grow.
Bolton and Bury councils are asking schools and colleges to keep coverings in place following a surge in cases – despite the rule being axed for kids elsewhere.
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The Government confirmed that it will remove the mask requirement for pupils in England from Monday, when the restrictions lift further and more indoor mixing is allowed.
A school leaders union' said it supported the schools which were planning to extend the use of face coverings among pupils beyond next week, adding that they are "best placed" to make the call.
MPs and parents have raised concerns about masks in class disrupting pupils' learning and wellbeing since they were introduced in March.
But unions and scientists have called for them to remain in class for longer to ensure pupils, staff, parents and the community are not put at risk of infection.
The Indian variant of coronavirus has been detected in Bolton, Greater Manchester, as well as in Blackburn, Lancashire, and Sefton in Merseyside, which have all seen rates rise rapidly.
Bolton is the area with the highest rate of cases, with 553 new infections in the seven days to May 9.
It has seen a particularly sharp rise in cases among unvaccinated under-25s.
A letter from Bolton council to parents said it was "asking schools to retain the use of face coverings, as per the current arrangements, until further notice".
The letter, from the council's children's services and public health directors, said: "There have been instances where young people attending school or college have contributed to the spread of the virus.
"We believe it would be irresponsible to wait until we have higher levels of the newer variants of Sars-CoV2 circulating before we act."
A similar letter has been sent from Bury council to parents advising masks to be retained in class.
The council said all secondary schools and colleges in the area are following the advice.
Julien Kramer, interim assistant director of education and inclusion at Bury council, wrote: "We have made significant progress in reducing cases of Covid-19, there is a risk that this progress is undermined by the spread of this more infectious variant.
"Widespread transmission of this variant would risk slowing down or reversing the progress we have made towards removing restrictions on meeting family and friends and reopening businesses.
"I am sure that you will understand the need for caution at this time."
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "We are aware that some schools are intending to extend the use of face masks among pupils beyond Monday.
"We back schools in the decisions they make.
"They best know their context and how their parents, staff, and pupils feel about the issue of face masks and they are therefore best placed to make a call on how to respond to the Government's guidance.
"There is also provision in the Government guidance for local action committees to reintroduce the use of face masks for pupils on a temporary basis in response to localised outbreaks, including variants of concern, and for decisions to be made by local directors of public health.
"There is clearly a great deal of concern about the variant which originated in India and the situation is obviously going to be fluid in the immediate future with regards to face masks."
Currently secondary school pupils have to wear masks while at their desks and in communal spaces like corridors.
Children in primaries are exempt from the rules, though teachers and adult visitors are expected to cover up where social distancing isn't possible.
The new Indian variant has been spreading rapidly in the UK, putting the easing of lockdown restrictions under threat.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) shows cases have doubled from 520 to 1,313 in a week, according to data up to May 5.
The Prime Minister said the Government is “anxious” about the variant, called B.1.617.2, which has emerged just as the UK is starting to recover from Covid.
PHE says there are 1,255 cases in England, 35 in Scotland, 11 in Wales and 12 in Northern Ireland.
More than 30 per cent of cases are in London, followed by 25 per cent in northwest England, 12 per cent in eastern England, 10 per cent in the East Midlands, and 8 per cent in the South East, according to PHE.
Case numbers are still relatively small. But scientists say it is the speed at which the numbers are growing that is of concern.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said lightning lockdowns could be brought back to crack down on hotspots popping up across Britain.
But he admitted the return of last year's tiers system would be a last resort because it failed to stop the spread of the virus across the country.
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