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Keep it clear campaign update (England)

Published Date: 11 May 2021
Photo: Changes to guidance on face coverings in classrooms in England

There have been some important changes to government guidance on face coverings in classrooms in England which may help your child.

In March, we explained how we had taken the first steps in legal action against the Department for Education (England) for not doing enough to ensure deaf children aren’t disadvantaged by the use of face coverings in classrooms. Deaf young campaigners have also continued to do an amazing job in highlighting the impact of face coverings on young people like them – see Dinah’s petition, for example.

In April, the Department made two important changes to guidance on face coverings on 1) ‘reasonable adjustments’ and 2) face shields and visors.

Recently, the Department has made a third important change, to highlight the potential benefits of transparent face coverings.

Some more information about these changes are shown below. 

Separately, the Department has also announced that, from the 17th May, it will no longer recommend that face coverings be worn in classrooms. Instead, it will recommend that face coverings be worn by staff or visitors in communal areas where social distancing is not possible. 

Transparent face coverings 

The latest version of the guidance now makes clear that there are potential benefits to the use of transparent face coverings in supporting communication by, for example, "enabling lip-reading or allowing for the full visibility of facial expressions."

The guidance stresses that all face coverings (whether opaque or transparent) should cover the nose and mouth and be made with a breathable material capable of filtering airborne particles. 

Our blog on types of face masks and coverings explains that there are a number of transparent face mask products which are available commercially, meet the same standards for PPE in lower risk health and care settings, and meet or exceed the criteria for face coverings.

Reasonable adjustments

The guidance now makes clear that schools and colleges must make all ‘reasonable adjustments’. This is a legal duty which means that they must do everything they can to make sure that disabled young people are not disadvantaged in education.

The guidance goes on to give examples of what those reasonable adjustments might be:

  • The provision and effective use of assistive listening devices, such as radio aids.
  • An increased focus on the listening environment, minimising all unnecessary background noise. Steps should be taken so that children with hearing loss are taught in classrooms with the best possible acoustic conditions.
  • Allowing the use of speech-recognition apps on mobile devices and tablets in classrooms, taking into account possible variations in the effectiveness of such apps in different classroom situations.
  • Additional communication support, including remote speech-to-text reporters or sign language interpreters.
  • Separate one-to-one teaching and support, without the use of face coverings and in rooms where social distancing can be achieved and/or through a Perspex panel.

These are all examples that we had suggested to the Department, so we are really pleased that they have copied these into their guidance. We have produced an infographic for schools and colleges that summarises these adjustments. 

As the Department makes clear, this are all possible examples. Some may work better than others for your child. There may also be other things that could help your child. This is why it’s helpful that the guidance also says that:

“education settings should discuss with pupils and parents the types of reasonable adjustments that are being considered to support an individual.”

Face shields and visors

Another important change is that guidance now makes clear that face visors or shields can be worn by people when communicating with deaf people.

People are exempt from wearing a face covering if they are communicating with someone who relies on lipreading. This means that teachers or other pupils, for example, can choose to take off their face covering when talking to a deaf young person.

We know that this is working well in many areas. At the same time, we also know that some people may feel uncomfortable about doing this.

This is why we thought it was important that guidance made clear that face visors or shields could be an option in these cases, as an alternative to the exemption.

Our response

We think that these are welcome changes.

Where face coverings are being used, we encourage parents and deaf young people to spread the word about these changes to their schools and colleges. As the government says, schools and colleges should be having conversations, if they are not already, on the reasonable adjustments that can be made to help deaf young people.

Our campaign

For several months, we have been calling on the Department for Education to strengthen guidance on face coverings in education so that deaf children are not disadvantaged.

It’s important to be clear that our campaign is not around whether face coverings should or shouldn’t be worn. We’re not a public health charity so this question is outside of our charitable remit. However, we do believe that government guidance must highlight the needs of deaf children and the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments.

For more information, read our position paper.

We are very grateful for the support from DLA Piper’s Public Law Team comprising Paul Stone (Partner) and George McLellan (Associate) and from Barrister Steve Broach of 39 Essex Street on this issue.

What about Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

In Northern Ireland, we’ve worked with officials to ensure that guidance sets out in detail (in the annex) the need to support deaf children if face coverings are being worn. It includes a section on clear face coverings and face visors/shields. 

In Scotland, the Government has also recently changed guidance to make clear that schools should carefully consider the impact of using face coverings with deaf children and should explore reasonable adjustments when these present a barrier to learning. Schools can also consider the use of transparent or see-through face coverings.

In Wales, guidance currently states that face coverings are not required in classrooms unless social distancing is not possible. Guidance is also clear that the impact of face coverings on deaf children should be carefully considered. We have been in discussions with officials and are waiting to see if and how guidance will be updated. We have been reassured that they will continue to consider and highlight the needs of deaf children. 

What should I do if my child is affected by this issue?

As well as the update in this blog, our website has more information on what you can do if face coverings are being worn in your child’s classroom. This includes template letters that you can use to raise the issue with your child’s school.

Wider information about deaf children’s education is available in our coronavirus blogs for families and professionals. You can also read the Department for Education guidance on face coverings in education

If you would like further information, support and advice, please contact our Helpline.