A leading grammar school has announced that it will send pupils home if they arrive at the school gates without a face covering in September.
The letter read: “Due to our large pupil and staff population it will be extremely difficult to maintain strict social distancing requirements.
"Therefore, in order to protect all members of the school community, including those who are vulnerable, all pupils, staff and visitors must wear a face covering within the school building.”
It stated clearly that “if a pupil arrives to school without a face mask, they will not be permitted to enter the classroom”.
The school’s leadership has explained that it plans to provide free, washable masks in school colours to pupils, and made the call after consulting its health committee.
The grammar is thought to be the first school in the UK to have sent out such a directive.
In other countries, schools have already taken similar or more extreme measures. Images of children playing alone in small plastic pods in a school in Bangkok, Thailand, sparked conversations around the world yesterday.
The Stormont Executive's chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young has said the wearing of face coverings by older pupils in certain school settings could offer some benefit.
But the Northern Irish education minister, Peter Weir, has said imposing face coverings in schools is "not necessary or implementable" at this stage.
English schools are to see new safety measures introduced, including classes arranged into "bubbles", social distancing behaviour regimes, and the banning of large or risky gatherings such as assemblies and choirs.
But the Government has so far said that children will not have to wear face masks in classrooms.
The decision has been criticised by teachers’ unions, and children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said last week that she “wouldn’t rule out” the use of masks by secondary school pupils if it “gives people confidence” to return en masse in September and to keep schools open.
The BRA decision immediately sparked debate. A parent of a 16-year-old pupil at the school immediately called in to the Belfast-based radio show to express her support for the measure.
The mother said she was impressed by the school’s precautionary response to an “ever-changing situation”, and that wearing the masks would be the same as any other form of school uniform.
The parent, who gave her name as Anne, said: “I am in support of [BRA headteacher] Mrs Woods’s approach to the school. As she said, she has an entire school population to protect, not just the pupils but also her staff and support staff.
“BRA is one of the biggest schools in north Belfast, and they have a huge population travelling, so if you have children travelling on different modes of public transport, how else are you supposed to protect those children?”
Caller Anne, whose daughter attends Belfast Royal Academy, backs the school’s move to introduce mandatory face masks for pupils
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She added: “She [Mrs Woods] is trying to navigate her way through an ever-changing situation. Her view is that if you protect now from the outset, you can scale it back, rather than scale it up.
“It is better to start off at the highest level to ask children and staff to wear a face covering.
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I do know that they [pupils] are keen to return to school... At least they can sit beside each other wearing a face covering and feel a sense of community together, because if they are all wearing one, it’s no different than wearing a school tie, a long skirt or a blazer.”
The Department for Education is due to issue detailed guidance on the use of face coverings and other PPE in school settings later this week.
A spokesperson said: "Any specific public health advice will be followed regarding the use of PPE and face coverings for teachers and pupils. Detailed guidance on the reopening of schools will be issued this week and will include advice on the use of PPE and face coverings."
It comes as No10 confirmed pubs and restaurants may be forced to shut to keep schools open in the event of local lockdowns from September. Boris Johnson's official spokesman told The Mirror: "Schools would be the absolute last sector to close in any local lockdown. Other venues would be expected to be closed first in the event that strict lockdown measures had to be applied."
The Standard has contacted the school for comment.