The Government’s lifting of safety restrictions such as the wearing of face masks in classrooms is sending “mixed messages” to pupils, headteachers in the North East, where Covid infection rates remain high, have said.

Andy Byers, headteacher of Framwellgate School in Durham, told the PA news agency that “case rates here, they might be falling but they’re falling from a very high level”.

“We’re worried that taking away mitigations now is going to allow those transmission rates to rise,” he said, adding that students at his school would be encouraged to continue wearing masks in classrooms for the next few weeks.

“We’ve had very high levels of compliance anyway – quite a lot of support from students and parents, so students are on the whole continuing to wear them today,” he said.

“It doesn’t help when they get mixed messages really from – they got home last night, watched the telly and saw the Prime Minister’s announcement, that’s not helpful really because that’s not the picture we want to paint of where our school is.”

Mr Byers said the school had about 10% of staff off, who had tested positive, as well as more than 60 students, and that when these rates started to fall he would relax the measures on masks.

He said the move to relax restrictions seemed to be “a political decision rather than reflective of what’s happening across the country”, with the announcement delivered at very short notice.

Maura Regan, chief executive at Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust, which runs 30 schools in the North East, said: “I do understand that we have to move on and that at some point we have to live with this.

“However, in the north east of England the cases are still extraordinarily high, and particularly at our schools.”

She said pupils in some of her schools were back in bubbles, while in other schools in the trust whole year groups had been sent home because of staff absences following positive Covid tests.

“So, while at some point we have to go to more normal practice, at this point in time the levels are so high in the North East that we are reluctant to not have face coverings and to give the protection that we can, particularly to staff, who are basically the ones who are on the front line,” she added.

One school in the trust was undergoing a deep clean this week because there were so many staff and students absent following a positive test.

“It’s certainly not all over in the North East,” she said.

Schools North East, a regional network of 1,150 schools, questioned about 100 schools this week and found that almost three quarters of them reported staff levels below 90%, while in almost a quarter, staff levels were below 80%.

Just 10% of schools had student attendance levels above 90%.

Schools North East said that managing absence, especially among staff, was “creating significant additional workload” which was making it harder for schools to identify pupils’ learning loss from the pandemic.

Over 80% of schools said that they would be keeping some Covid-related measures in place.

Chris Zarraga, director of Schools North East, said: “The easing of restrictions follows declining Covid cases and high levels of vaccine uptake, however schools are still facing real challenges in getting staff cover, increasing staff workload and stress and impacting negatively on wellbeing.”

“There are serious concerns for schools, with local pictures often radically different from the national picture,” he added.

Heads in other parts of the country also expressed frustration with Wednesday’s announcement on masks.

James Handscombe, principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in London, said that “the announcement today is not timed for the interests of students: it is cynical”.