Pupils at secondary schools across England will have to wear masks in classrooms when they return to education this week.

The Government said the move will “maximise the number of children in school” for the “maximum amount of time” in light of the recent surge in the Omicron strain of the virus.

It stressed that the recommendation for both schools and colleges will be temporary, remaining in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are scheduled to expire. At this point it will be reviewed.

An additional 7,000 air cleaning units will also be provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces, the Department for Education said.

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Secondary schools have already been told they will get a break from Ofsted in the first week of term, as they carry out on-site testing.

But the Government clarified on Sunday that, beyond this, the watchdog will encourage schools, colleges and early years settings that are “significantly impacted by Covid-related staff absence” to ask for a deferral to their inspection.

And inspectors who are also school, college or early years leaders will not be asked to carry out their Ofsted duties for the time being. The temporary measure will apply from the start of January.

Headteachers welcomed the reintroduction of masks in classrooms, saying schools and colleges would take it “in their stride”. Face coverings are already recommended in communal areas for older students and staff.

The news comes as six trade unions representing education staff across the country urged the Government to offer improved financial support to schools and colleges for the costs of supply staff to cover for Covid-related absences.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “While there are obvious drawbacks to the use of face coverings in classrooms, it is clear that the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education with the potential for further widespread disruption of schools, colleges, and young people.

“It is absolutely essential that everything possible is done to reduce transmission and ensure that children remain in school, and we therefore support the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms for students in year 7 and above.

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“Face coverings are already advised in communal areas for pupils in year 7 and above. Pupils are accustomed to their use and we are sure the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms is something that schools and colleges will take in their stride.”

The Government said the 7,000 new air purifiers would be for areas where “quick fixes to improve ventilation are not possible” – for example, where windows cannot be opened.

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

“There is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents challenges, but the entire education sector has responded with a Herculean effort, and for that I thank each and every one of you.

“The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will bolster our support for schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption.”