Face coverings in schools

PT made this Freedom of Information request to City of York Council

This request has been closed to new correspondence. Contact us if you think it should be reopened.

Response to this request is long overdue. By law, under all circumstances, City of York Council should have responded by now (details). You can complain by requesting an internal review.

Dear City of York Council,

Please refer also to my letter of formal complaint of 9th September, to which I attached: a copy of my email to Sharon Stoltz and Amanda Hatton of Monday 7th September; Ms Stolz’s reply of 8th September; my email reply to her of the same date, and; her response to me of 9th September, with regard to their communication to schools, parents and carers of 2nd September and their decision to ‘strongly encourage’ pupils within York to wear face coverings in schools, in direct conflict with the advice and guidance of the CMO, DCMO, DfE and PHE and the actions of the majority of Local Authorities outside of local lockdown areas. I have not received any acknowledgement from Ms Hatton.

I am disappointed by Ms Stoltz’s response and her refusal to provide any evidence to support York City Council’s public health measure. Given the far-reaching impact of this measure and its wide potential implications for all children and young people within the council area, I would have expected this information to be readily available in order to support your position. Given that the council chose to delay its correspondence to the last possible minute before schools reopened (WHO guidance applying to children aged 12 and over having been issued on 21st August and Government guidance issued via the DfE on 25th August), I expressed concern and requested that the information behind York Council’s decision to ignore all of the existing guidance be disclosed in a timely fashion.

I have therefore made a formal complaint with regard to the decision taken to ‘strongly recommend’ face coverings for all children within secondary schools in York, the communication of it, which includes factually incorrect information as detailed in my original email, the lack of accountability and transparency around the decision and the refusal to disclose information to illustrate the basis on which the decision is made. Given the council's refusal to disclose any information to support their position, I am now also making a FOI request as detailed below.

This decision has far reaching and complex implications and, as it is contrary to existing advice, should be transparent and the council able to account for its decision and to disclose the factors and data considered in reaching it. I am once again requesting the information detailed in my email to Ms Stoltz:

““- On what basis you have taken the decision to ‘strongly encourage’ face masks in York schools, contrary to central Government, DfE and PHE advice and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Chief Medical Officer, and in an area of very low transmission of Covid-19.

- What evidence you have employed to ensure that the measure you have decided to recommend is actually likely to increase pupil safety on their return to school.

- For how long you intend this measure to remain in place and at what periods you intend to review it.

- How you intend to measure the efficacy and adverse effects of the intervention.

- What risk assessments you have undertaken on the potential effects of the measure before ‘strongly recommending’ it.”

Please provide me with a full response to each of the questions above, with full inclusion of the evidence you have considered, risk assessments undertaken, periodicity and method of review of the measure put in place.

For the sake of clarity, for example, when Ms Stoltz has informed me in her email that face coverings for children in schools is a ‘worthwhile extra precaution’, I expect qualification of the likely mitigation of risk with reference to the data you have used, versus likely additional risk, and the data used to assess this. I would also expect to see your assessment of the differing sizes and types of school to which you have issue this generic advice in contradiction of the DfE guidance.”

I originally contacted Ms Stoltz and Ms Hatton as I believe that any measure which York City Council chooses to impose upon its citizens should be necessary, proportionate and have evidence of efficacy. I am disappointed that York City Council is seemingly unable or unwilling to demonstrate this.

As an outcome of my complaint I am seeking that you: issue an apology and correction to those in receipt of your letter of 2nd September for the inaccurate information included within it; provide details of the information requested above to support your decision; and, finally, amend your decision and issue updated advice to schools which is in line with central Government, DfE, PHE, CMO, DCMO and the actions taken by other LAs.

I look forward to your early response.

Yours faithfully,

x

foi@york.gov.uk, City of York Council

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Glynn Magheramorne left an annotation ()

See also https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/f... ; this is due for a response at the end of this week.

Some York schools have since gone on to mandate the wearing of face coverings.

Dear [email address],
I am posting the replies I have received from you on the WDTK website as, contrary to your agreement to do so, you have failed to provide your response in this forum. There are two letters copied and pasted below.

Response 1:
Dear Ms xxx

Freedom of Information

Please see below the response to your complaint and enquiry under the Freedom of Information Act received on 09 September 2020.

I am sorry that you were disappointed in my responses to your original enquiry on 07 September 2020. I was mistaken in asking that you resubmit your request for information as a Freedom of Information request and have been advised by the Customer and Corporate Services department that I could have arranged for this to be dealt with as an FOI myself. This was a genuine mistake on my part and I hope you can accept my apologies for the inconvenience this has caused you.

I have provided responses to your specific questions below:

1. Question: On what basis you have taken the decision to ‘strongly encourage’ face masks in schools, contrary to central Government, DfE and PHE advice and the advice of the CMO and Deputy CMO and in an area of very low transmission of Covid-19.

Response:
Every local authority Director of Public Health has a statutory duty to take such steps as are necessary to protect the health of the local population. This is set out in the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and defined as:

(a) to exercise the functions and duties of the local authority to take steps to improve public health under section 2B, 111 and 249 and Schedule 1 to the NHS Act 2006, as amended by the Health & Social Care Act 2012
(b) to exercise any of the Secretary of State’s public health protection or health improvement functions that are delegated to local authorities, either by arrangement or under regulations, including services mandated by regulations made under section 6C of the NHS Act 2006, as amended by section 18 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012

Therefore, although I am required to consider guidance issued by central Government, DfE and PHE advice and the advice of the CMO and Deputy CMO on the national position, I can make my own decisions, as Director of Public Health, to recommend further steps locally that I consider are necessary to protect the population of York.

In making a decision to go further than the advice from national bodies, in this case, I reviewed the national situation, the regional situation with an increase in the number of school outbreaks across Yorkshire and Humber and also the most recent Public Health data for York showing a clear increase in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in children aged 10-19. In any pandemic response it is vitally important to react quickly to early indications of any rise in cases so that additional measures can be put in place to contain the transmission of the virus. Therefore, on this occasion my decision was that recommending the wearing of face coverings in secondary schools in communal areas where social distancing is difficult to achieve was a reasonable measure under the circumstances in order to help contain the pandemic and keep the community transmission of the virus low.

Whilst you are correct that the government is not currently recommending that face coverings are necessary in education settings, schools and colleges do have the discretion to require face coverings in indoor communal areas where social distancing cannot be safely managed, if they believe it is right in their particular circumstances. The public health and education departments in City of York Council has undertaken extensive work with schools over the summer to put in place necessary measures to ensure that schools can reopen to all children and keep staff and pupils safe. It was a joint decision, in discussion with Head Teachers, to recommend that face coverings are worn. However this is voluntary, not mandated, and of course Head Teachers and School Governors are able to make their own decisions on what is the right course of action for their individual school.

2. Question: What evidence you have employed to ensure that the measure you have decided to recommend is actually likely to increase pupil safety on their return to school.

Response:
SARS-CoV-2 is a novel virus and scientists are continuing to learn about the virus through research. The evidence on the effectiveness of face coverings in containing the spread of Covid-19 is still developing and guidance is changing accordingly. It is therefore difficult at this moment of time to know exactly that the wearing of face coverings by staff and pupils in communal areas of secondary schools and on school transport in York will increase pupil safety. Further research and evaluation is required. We do know that a high proportion of children and young people show very mild or no symptoms of Covid-19. The aim of our outbreak control plan is to contain and limit the spread of infection. With known cases this is through isolation. However, in a school population where a high proportion of people may not show symptoms we need to take other measures to stop the spread at source. The wearing of face coverings is one way to achieve this.

3. Question: For how long you intend this measure to remain in place and what periods you intend to review it.

Response:
The measure will be in place only as long as needed in order to minimise the risk of transmission of Covid-19 in secondary schools. It will be reviewed on a 7 day rolling basis using the current national, regional and local situation with the pandemic and taking account of the most recent Public Health data to assess the level of risk. The advice to schools will be kept updated accordingly.

4. Question: How you intend to measure the efficacy and adverse effects of the intervention.

Response:
The efficacy of the intervention i.e. the wearing of face coverings by staff and pupils in secondary schools in communal areas and on school transport will be measured by monitoring the number of individual cases, clusters and outbreaks of Covid-19 in York secondary schools.

I am aware of some of the concerns in the literature about the impacts of the wearing of face coverings on children’s ability to learn. This is why the advice is only to wear a face covering in communal areas of the school e.g. corridors and on school transport where social distancing is difficult to maintain. I have not recommended the wearing of face coverings in classrooms where they might interfere with learning; additional steps have been put in place in classroom settings to minimise the risk of infection.

I am also aware that for some children with physical or mental health conditions that the wearing of a face covering may be more difficult or not possible. In these situations the school will work to support the child to safely wear a face covering or ensure that they are exempt and that other staff are aware of this. The council’s education department works very closely with schools and will be collecting real-time information on any problems arising from the wearing of face coverings and sharing this anonymised information with the public health team for evaluation purposes.

The public health team will be continuing to use our professional networks, reviewing published evidence and working closely with Public Health England on any validated adverse effects of the wearing of face coverings in secondary school settings.

In addition work has been undertaken to provide schools with information on the safe putting on and taking off face coverings and access to tools that can be used by teachers with pupils.

5. Question: What risk assessments you have undertaken on the potential effects of the measure before strongly recommending it.

Response:
Schools have been provided with information and links to NHS guidance on those staff and pupils who might experience difficulties with wearing face coverings and are therefore exempt from the need to wear one. There was also a link to this information in the letter sent to parents/carers by Amanda Hatton and myself.

It is the responsibility of the Head Teacher to undertake the relevant health and safety assessments in their school and to ensure that work with individual pupils and their parent/carers on individual risk assessments is completed as required.

6. As an outcome of my complaint I am seeking that you issue an apology and correction to those in receipt of the letter sent on 02 September 2020 for:
i. the inaccurate information included within it;
ii. provide details of the information requested above to support your decision;
iii. amend your decision and issue updated advice for schools which is in line with central Government, DfE, PHE, CMO, DCMO and the actions taken by other LAs.

Response:

I have given due consideration to your request but have made a decision not to uphold it. Although I accept the letter sent to parents/carers could have been worded differently in part the information was not inaccurate and therefore, in my professional opinion no apology or correction is necessary. Schools have the responsibility for communicating with and engaging with individual pupils and their parents/carers on the appropriateness of wearing face coverings by their child and for dealing with any queries. It will risk creating confusion if a further letter is sent at this time, particularly as the vast majority of parents/carers have not raised any concerns about the advice that has been given.

Details of the information you requested to support my decision have been provided earlier in this letter.

Finally in response to your reference to other local authorities it is not correct to say that City of York Council is the only council outside of lockdown areas to recommend the wearing of face coverings in secondary schools. For example East Riding and Hull local authorities have advised all staff in primary schools and all pupils and staff in secondary schools to wear face coverings indoors at all times except in the classroom.

I hope I have managed to respond to your questions and concerns. However,
if you are dissatisfied with the response you have the right to ask for a review of how your enquiry was handled and responded to. This can be done by contacting us through [email address] stating your reason(s) why you are dissatisfied. If you remain dissatisfied after receiving the review response you can contact the Information Commissioner, contact details below:
Information Commissioner's Office
Wycliffe House Water Lane
Wilmslow
Cheshire
SK9 5AF
Tel: 0303 123 1113 (local rate) or 01625 545 745 if you prefer to use a national rate number
Fax: 01625 524 510
Or email: [email address] (please include your telephone number)

Yours sincerely,

Sharon Stoltz FFPH
Director of Public Health

Response 2
Dear Ms xxx,

Following your email on the 11th September 2020 I have completed a stage three review of your complaint.

The Complaint

My understanding of your complaint is that:

1. The council’s advice to schools on the wearing of face coverings has left school leaders in an untenable position and has far reaching implications for the children and young people of York, which the council have been unable to demonstrate that they have adequately assessed or have any plan to assess.

2. Failure to provide information which should be readily to hand, given the importance of this decision.

3. The council have given no grounds to prove otherwise, that the advice issues to schools is unnecessary and disproportionate given your own current assessment of ‘the current situation in York’ and you have shown no evidence that the intervention is likely to be effective.

My understanding of the outcomes you would like are:

• A correction of the incorrect and misleading information issued by the council on 2nd September
• An apology for the same and a revision of the council’s advice
• Provide a full response to each of the questions from my original request, with full inclusion of the evidence you have considered, risk assessments undertaken, periodicity and method of review of the measure put in place.

Review

In the course of this review I have reviewed the response and apology now provided to your request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

I shall review your complaints in turn:

1. The council’s advice to schools on the wearing of face coverings has left school leaders in an untenable position and has far reaching implications for the children and young people of York, which the council have been unable to demonstrate that they have adequately assessed or have any plan to assess.

A complaint under the corporate complaints procedure cannot consider the outcome of an expert professional opinion, but whether officers have followed appropriate procedures to reach their conclusions.

Having reviewed the response provided to your request under the FOIA, I am aware the Director of Public Health has explained their responsibilities, as well as the process they followed in providing the guidance to schools. This includes the information they reviewed and the work with schools, before reaching a conclusion.

I therefore consider the Director of Public Health followed an appropriate process to consider the circumstances in York before providing guidance based on the outcome of their expert professional opinion.

This part of your complaint is not upheld.

2. Failure to provide information which should be readily to hand, given the importance of this decision.

I am aware your have advised you consider this to be a complaint about the Director’s conduct. I can advise this is not considered a matter of misconduct, but a procedural error and has therefore been considered under the corporate complaints procedure.

I accept the Director of Public Health did not initially provide the information requested in your email of the 8th September and instead asked you to send a further email to request this information under the FOIA.

Further to my email to you on the 11th September apologising for this error, I am also aware the Director of Public Health has acknowledged the error explaining this was a genuine oversight and has apologised for this.

I would therefore like to repeat the apology that you were initially asked to send a further email requesting the information under the FOIA. I am however aware that a response has now been provided, within the 20 working days noted under the FOIA.

On the basis you were asked to specifically request a response under the FOIA, but has now been responded to within 20 working days from the date originally received, this part of your complaint is partly upheld.

3. The council have given no grounds to prove otherwise, that the advice issues to schools is unnecessary and disproportionate given your own current assessment of ‘the current situation in York’ and you have shown no evidence that the intervention is likely to be effective.

As explained in response to point one of your complaint, whilst I realise you may disagree with the Director’s expert professional opinion, I consider they followed an appropriate process to provide advice to schools.

This part of your complaint is not upheld.

Further to this I can advise that if you remain dissatisfied with the outcome of an expert professional opinion, I would advise you consider seeking your own legal advice, as the appropriate procedure for considering this would be through a Judicial Review.

Conclusions

It is considered the Director followed an appropriate process to reach conclusions and provide guidance to schools, with links to Government guidance also being provided. I therefore do not consider the guidance to be incorrect or misleading and I cannot recommend it is reissued at this time. The Director will however continue to work with schools to provide ongoing guidance, advice and support to schools in the changing situation related to Covid19.

As noted above I would like to reiterate the council’s apologies for the inconvenience and frustration caused as a result of initially asking you to send a further email requesting the information under the FOIA. I am pleased this has now been resolved and a response to your request has been provided.

I can also confirm the response provided for your FOIA request will also be forwarded to the address you provided through the WDTK website by the end of this week.

If you remain dissatisfied with your response under the FOIA as explained in that response you have the right to ask for a review of how your enquiry was handled and responded to, by contacting us through [email address] stating your reason(s) why you are dissatisfied.

If you are not satisfied with the findings of this complaints review I would advise that you approach the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman investigates complaints in a fair and independent way - it does not take sides. It is a free service.
The Ombudsman expects you to have given us chance to deal with your complaint, before you contact them, therefore please enclose a copy of this email in your contact with them and any responses you have received about your complaint. If you have not heard from us within a reasonable time, the Ombudsman may decide to look into your complaint anyway. This is usually up to 12 weeks but can be longer for social care complaints that follow a statutory process.
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The quickest way to complain is to complete the online complaint form on the following link:

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Yours sincerely,

Cath Murray
Complaints and Feedback Manager

Cath Murray | Customer Complaints & Feedback Manager
t: 01904 554145 | e: [email address]

City of York Council | Customer Complaints & Feedback Team, Customer & Corporate Services
West Offices | Station Rise | York YO1 6GA
www.york.gov.uk | facebook.com/cityofyork | @CityofYork

Yours sincerely,

PT

Glynn Magheramorne left an annotation ()

An appalling response; they admit " the government is BOT currently recommending that face coverings are necessary in education settings" however they wrote to parents/schools on 2 September 2020 stating "The government has subsequently changed their guidance and ARE now recommending that adults and children wear face coverings in communal spaces in secondary schools and higher education settings."

They do not appear to be acknowledging that they mislead people!

See also: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/f...

Glynn Magheramorne left an annotation ()

An appalling response; they admit "the government is *NOT* currently recommending that face coverings are necessary in education settings" however they wrote to parents/schools on 2 September 2020 stating "The government has subsequently changed their guidance and *ARE* now recommending that adults and children wear face coverings in communal spaces in secondary schools and higher education settings."

Note the contradiction!

They do not appear to be acknowledging that they mislead people regarding Government guidance; many schools and parents were under the impression the Government guidance stated the opposite of what they now admit it states.