Covid-19: Schools not 'high-risk' workplaces after all

DfE backtracks on change to guidance that had led some to believe it considered schools comparatively risky environments

Amy Gibbons

Coronavirus: Schools are not 'high-risk' workplaces, says DfE

The government has restored a line to its Covid guidance stating that schools are not considered "high-risk settings", following an outcry over its decision to cut the detail last week.

On Wednesday the Department for Education removed a paragraph from its guidance stating that schools were not considered "high-risk" settings when compared to other workplaces, leading some to speculate that the department now believed them to be comparatively risky environments.

One teacher shared the news on Twitter with the caption: "We were told schools weren't high-risk and children didn't transmit the virus so not entitled to proper PPE. They're now backtracking on that...but I still don't have proper PPE!"

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Another Twitter user, Amanda, asked: "Does this mean schools ARE high-risk settings then?"

And another user tweeted: "Sometimes [it's] not what someone says... [it's] what they stop saying."

Others implied that the DfE had attempted to remove the line without drawing attention to the change.

Teacher Debra Kidd shared a link to the story with the caption: "Shhhh. Don't tell anyone, they might not notice."

And Jane Masters, a biology teacher, said: "Nothing to see here.... move along...."

The DfE had stated in its guidance that Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) advised that schools were not considered high-risk work environments, and it was "therefore appropriate for teachers and other school staff to return to their workplace setting".

Coronavirus: Schools 'not high-risk'

Following an update to the guidance on Wednesday, this detail vanished, prompting some to believe the department had changed its stance.

But the DfE has told Tes that the line still stands, and it has now been restored to the guidance.

The latest version of the guidance states: "Where schools implement the system of controls outlined in this document, in line with their own workplace risk assessment, PHE and DHSC confirm that these measures create an inherently safer environment for children and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced.

"As a result, on current evidence, PHE and DHSC advise that schools are not currently considered high-risk settings when compared to other workplace environments."

The news comes amid mounting concerns about infections in schools.

Over the weekend, Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling led to the original lockdown in March, said ministers may be forced to close schools to older children if coronavirus cases continue to increase at the current rate.

And the Independent SAGE group of scientists has called for schools to be closed for up to three weeks in a "circuit-breaker" lockdown around half-term and for masks in classrooms to be part of a package of national measures to slow the spread of the virus when schools return.

Asked about the change before the DfE reinstated the line, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "Schools and colleges have implemented the safety measures required in the government's guidance.

"However, the government's failure to get a grip on the spread of the virus, and particularly the under-performance of the test and trace system, is obviously leading to infection rates rising at a worrying rate in many parts of the country.

"We are not in a position to compare the relative risks of working in a school or college with those in other workplace environments.

"We have, however, repeatedly asked the government for more clarity on how schools and colleges can support staff and pupils in higher-risk categories, including those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, those who are pregnant, and those from BAME [black, Asian and/or minority ethnic] communities. This clarity has been sorely lacking."

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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