Barring the U-turn to end of all U-turns, the government has committed to the cessation of all Covid requirements from 19 July.
For schools this means, in theory, doing away with masks, contact tracing, social distancing and much more.
However, schools are not out of the woods yet, with the government guidance maintaining the expectation to have "outbreak management plans outlining how you would operate if there were an outbreak in your school or local area".
This is not a new requirement per se, but for many it will require some serious redrafting of what already exists or creating something new if they had not produced their own document yet, as James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union, outlines.
“I think all schools are going to have to go back and review and update their outbreak management plans in light of the most significant changes to school guidance we have seen since the start of pandemic,” he says.
Covid and schools: The requirement for outbreak management plans
Certainly, for some leaders, the idea of having to have yet more new or updated school-specific outbreak management plans seems burdensome.
“For the government to talk so glibly about ‘outbreak management plans’ like we all have one just in our top drawer, ready to throw out on the table to our community, staff, pupils, parents and carers, is utterly ridiculous,” says one school leader, speaking anonymously.
Others are more sanguine, with Tina Button, a special school business manager in Kent, saying: “We don't have one currently, but we can write one fairly easily using elements of our risk assessment."
Using risk assessments to inform such documents is something that Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, agrees is a good strategy, although she notes that they are not likely to be directly comparable types of document.
“Schools and colleges are experienced at drawing up detailed risk assessments, particularly after experiences during the pandemic, but outbreak management planning is quite a different thing and the government will need to be clear about its expectations around how these plans are disseminated, stored and updated,” she says.
To this end, McCulloch says that the ACSL has been in conversation with the Department for Education about what help may be available to do this.
“We are talking to the DfE about what support might be available to help education leaders put together outbreak management plans.”
Take your time in producing the plans
Whether such guidance is forthcoming remains to be seen. In the meantime, Bowen says schools should attempt, where possible, to adapt anything they may have already produced and draw on what they have learned over the past year.
“Our advice to schools would be to look to see what they have already created and use that as a starting point and draw on your experience of the past year or so, around masks or bubbles, and think about how you might replicate that if required,” he says.
This is a point echoed by Paul Cornish, principal of Newton Abbot College in Devon, who says leaders should give themselves a few days to properly assess what is being asked rather than diving straight in, as it could save a lot of unnecessary work.
“Too many heads over the last 18 months have had to plan, replan and replan because, with all best intentions, they have jumped immediately to the sudden announcements and changes,” he says.
“Often, the public announcement by ministers does not completely match the following guidance from the DfE over the following days.”
This is certainly sage advice but even so, there is no escaping the fact that for many heads the requirement will be another task on an already endless to-do list, as Bowen sums up: “Making a new document or amending an existing one is still a burden schools could do without.”
Whether this is seen as a burden or not, it is something schools need to get done – so what are some of the key elements to include and be aware of? Using the government’s contingency framework document and operational guidance document, we've summarised some the key extracts worth being aware of below:
Face coverings are likely to become an emotive issue – for schools and society – with many opting to continue using them even after their requirement has legally ended.
However, even in schools where they are not required, the government says any outbreak management plan must recognise that a director of public health might “advise you that face coverings should temporarily be worn in communal areas or classrooms (by pupils, staff and visitors, unless exempt)”.
As such, it suggests making sure that outbreak management plans cover this possibility, and that there is clear understanding among staff on why this is, what will be required and a consistency in how it is enforced – especially if other schools in the area are not doing anything similar.
Bubble groups have been one of the major issues for schools, parents and pupils around the country recently, with so many bursting due to the Delta variant that it has become unmanageable for many.
As such, the end of bubbles from 19 July is welcomed by many – even as others are preparing to maintain their use. Either way, the government says any outbreak plan should prepare for bubbles to return in some form.
“You should make sure your outbreak management plans cover the possibility that in some local areas it may become necessary to reintroduce ‘bubbles’ for a temporary period, to reduce mixing between groups.”
Track and trace
From 19 July education setting will not have to continue contact tracing – instead, this will be done by NHS Test and Trace.
However, if an outbreak occurs, the government says schools would have to work with health protection teams to help identify individuals who may have been in contact with known contagious individuals.
This could also mean a return of control measures, such as those listed above.
Remote education requirements
As outlined in the contingency framework document, outbreak management plans also need to take into account how a setting will ensure that every pupil "receives the quantity of education and care to which they are normally entitled".
This means plans should include the possibility of moving back to remote teaching, with the DfE advising that settings "maintain [the] capacity to deliver high-quality remote education for next academic year" and ensure it is equivalent in length to what pupils would receive in school.
What does an outbreak look like?
So with everything in place, the next question would be – what will a Covid outbreak look like? Well, it’s hardly definitive but the guidance states that “if you have several confirmed cases within 14 days, you may have an outbreak”.
How many is "several" though? And does the relative size of the school against any rise in numbers need to be taken into consideration? It’s not clear, so schools may well need to refer to the DfE helpline for information – as advised by the government.
“You should call the dedicated advice service who will escalate the issue to your local health protection team where necessary and advise if any additional action is required, such as implementing elements of your outbreak management plan,” the guidance says.
The helpline number is 0800 046 8687 and you should select option 1.
How do you reduce the chance of an outbreak?
Of course, prevention is better than cure, and the advice to schools is that maintaining rigorous hygiene measures should help to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.
This includes running appropriate cleaning regimes and keeping occupied spaces well ventilated. And following public health advice on testing, self-isolation and managing confirmed cases of Covid-19 is a good place to start.
With schools all au fait with these more enhanced measures, the hope will be that these can be maintained where time and budget allows, enabling effective hygiene.
How long would outbreak measures last?
That’s another unanswerable question but it seems clear the government is keen that any outbreak measures are only used as a last resort.
“Given the detrimental impact that restrictions on education can have on children and young people, any measures in schools should only ever be considered as a last resort, kept to the minimum number of schools or groups possible, and for the shortest amount of time possible," it says.