A SENIOR Southampton councillor has welcomed moves to make secondary school pupils in England wear face masks when they return after the Christmas break.

James Baillie, the city council's cabinet member for education, said the reintroduction of masks in classrooms was an important step in the battle against the Omicron variant.

The government says it is determined to preserve "face-to-face" education despite the massive surge in Covid infections across the UK.

Ministers are anxious to prevent huge numbers of staff and pupils having to isolate at home.

The Department for Education (DfE) says the wearing of face masks in classrooms and other teaching spaces will "maximise the number of children in school" for the "maximum amount of time".

The new guidance will be reviewed on January 26, when the government's Plan B regulations are due to expire.

Cllr Baillie said: "The reintroduction of face masks is an important step to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant and to protect face-to-face learning.

"We have been ready to support schools in implementing any new guidance from the DfE and will continue to work with headteachers and supporting them in making the best decisions to keep their children safe."

Labour coucillor Darren Paffey added: "Throughout the pandemic Southampton’s schools have worked closely with the council’s education and public health teams to ensure schools are as safe as possible.

"Government guidance has always been too little too late, so I commend local education and health leaders for working together and getting ahead of the game. Many have already been using masks again since before Christmas.

"The Conservative government said they would invest in better classroom ventilation, but that turned out to be another broken promise."

Royston Smith, Tory MP for Southampton Itchen, said: "We know Omicron is particularly virulent but we simply must keep children in school.

"While it is inconvenient to have to wear masks if that helps to protect young people and their teachers I think it’s a price worth paying.”

Geoff Barton, head of the Association of School and College Leaders, is also backing the new face mask rule.

He said: "While there are obvious drawbacks to the use of face coverings in classrooms, it is clear the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education, with the potential for further widespread disruption."

But the National Deaf Children’s Society said the return of face masks would “fill thousands of deaf students with dread”.

“For more than 35,000 deaf students in England, face masks make lip reading impossible and prevent sign language users from understanding crucial facial expressions."

The wearing of masks is not a legal requirement but ministers expect schools to follow the advice.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: "Being in the classroom is the very best place for children and I’m looking forward to welcoming pupils back to continue their face-to-face learning, which is so important for their education and wellbeing."

The government has also announced that 7,000 new air purifiers will be made available to schools where good ventilation is often difficult to achieve.

But Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, described the move as “completely inadequate”.

She said: "With over 300,000 classrooms in England they [the government] have failed to provide an effective solution."