Covid: Heads ‘hung out to dry’ in end-of-term confusion

School leaders left searching for answers over who needs to self-isolate when requirement for bubbles ends

John Roberts

Covid: Headteachers say they face uncertainty over Covid rules in schools next week.

School leaders are warning that the government has put them “in the firing line” with parents and the public by creating huge confusion over Covid restrictions in the final week of term.

From next week, bubbles will no longer be required in schools and the handling of contact tracing will be passed to the NHS.

However, self-isolation rules are not being relaxed until August.

The changes have resulted in widespread confusion, with uncertainty over how contacts will be traced, whether pupils isolating last week can return to school next week and who will need to self-isolate.

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Many schools plan to keep school bubbles until the end of this academic year, as they are permitted to do under Department for Education (DfE) guidance.

Tim Bowen, president of the NAHT school leaders union, said: “In effect, they're hanging school leaders out to dry. Expectations from parents and families over what school rules will be from the 19 July could well be at odds with what is actually necessary for the situation in their local area.

“And this is going to leave school leaders, in effect, as the bad guys, enforcing rules the public do not understand or feel have been abandoned,” he told an all-party parliamentary group meeting on the coronavirus yesterday.

He also accused the government of washing its hands of the responsibility for the safety of children, families and school staff by relaxing measures as Covid cases rise exponentially. “Despite soaring levels of Covid in schools, the government is...removing nearly all safety restrictions,” he said.

The uncertainty has not been helped this week as headteachers struggle to get through to advisers on the DfE Covid-19 helpline owing to “high call volumes”.

The DfE apologised for resulting “longer call time waits” in an email sent yesterday, seen by Tes.

The NAHT’s director of policy, James Bowen, said both schools and parents face significant confusion next week over who needs to self-isolate.

And he told Tes that the union is chasing answers from the Department for Education on how contract tracing is expected to work next week.

He said: “From next week, our understanding is that NHS Test and Trace takes over full responsibility for identifying close contacts and contacting pupils that need to self-isolate.  

Identifying ‘close contacts’

“However, we are concerned that younger children will almost certainly find it difficult to provide details of who their close contacts are and so we can see a situation where NHS Test and Trace are then getting in touch with schools to fill in the gaps. The guidance says this will only happen in exceptional cases but it’s hard to see how this will work in practice. 

GDPR concerns

“There is also a question of whether schools are free to pass on parent contact details to NHS test and trace if they are asked to without breaching GDPR rules. We have asked the department about this and are yet to have a reply.

‘Pressure to reduce close contacts’

“One important question is whether the NHS will use the same or a different approach when deciding who close contacts are in school – this needs clarifying urgently. We are concerned that there might be a pressure on test and trace to identify less close contacts.”

Isolation won’t be cut short

On school bubbles, he added: “Our expectation is that if a child has been told to self-isolate by the school prior to 19 July, that direction remains in place and the self-isolation needs to continue as the decision was taken prior to NHS Test and Trace taking over.

“We would not expect to see that overruled for the last few days of term, but you can see why there could be a lot of confusion, particularly for parents, about what happens next week.”

Plans for next week have also been discussed by school leaders and teachers on social media.

Headteacher David Phillips, who is  ASCL council’s East Midlands representative, posted on Twitter to ask: “If a school asks students to self-isolate, does this period now stop on 19th and they come back in?

He added: “Asking for a friend. We asked the Department for Education and they didn't know.”

Cathy Starbuck, the assistant director of education, skills and work at Salford City Council, replied to say that, unless schools have consulted on a new risk assessment with trade unions and staff “to enable NHS track and trace to take over the contact tracing on behalf of the school, then the school need to continue contact tracing and asking contacts to self-isolate”.

A DfE spokesperson said: "Our priority is for schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face, high quality education to all pupils as we know that being out of education causes significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, mental and physical health.

"The Government has balanced education and health considerations, weighing the impact of covid measures on teaching, education and wellbeing, against the covid risks that have now changed due to the success of the vaccination rollout.

"We will continue to keep these measures under review, in partnership with health experts and informed by the latest scientific evidence and advice."

Public Health England have been approached for a comment. 

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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