Need to know: What Covid unlocking means for schools

Under new DfE guidance, schools will be encouraged to scrap bubbles and masks while keeping contingency plans on hold

Amy Gibbons

Covid: What the lifting of restrictions and bubbles means for schools

Today, shortly after new figures revealed that more than one in 10 secondary students were absent for Covid-related reasons last week, the government confirmed that schools will be free to ditch bubbles, face masks and contact tracing measures from step four of its roadmap.

Gavin Williamson's statement to the House of Commons was accompanied by a new set of guidance from the Department for Education, setting out how restrictions will change for schools in just under two weeks' time.

The government has said step four is expected to begin on 19 July if its "four tests" for easing Covid restrictions have been met. This will be confirmed on 12 July following a review of the latest data.

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The date will mark a step change in the Department for Education's approach to managing the coronavirus, with schools encouraged to do away with many of the protective measures they have used to curb the spread of Covid-19 for a year and a half, while keeping contingency plans on the backburner.

Here's everything you need to know about the changes...

Covid: Schools can choose to keep bubbles

Following an alarming rise in absence rates across the sector, schools will no longer be required to "keep children in consistent groups ('bubbles')" and use these to determine which pupils are sent home to isolate.

The change will apply from 19 July, if all goes to plan with moving to step four of the roadmap. This means bubbles will not be required for any summer provision or in schools from the autumn term.

However, schools remaining open beyond 19 July will have the option to maintain the bubble system for the remainder of the summer term if they wish.

Mr Williamson said today: "Keeping children in consistent groups was essential to control the spread of the virus when our population was less vaccinated.

"We recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children's education. That is why we'll be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges."

He added: "I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions over and above those of wider society, especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe during this pandemic."

An end to face masks, staggered starts and social distancing

Mr Williamson said today that "some protective measures" will remain in place for the autumn term, including "enhanced hygiene and ventilation".

But from step four, face coverings will no longer be advised for pupils, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas, or on school transport.

The education secretary also said that "social distancing will no longer be necessary" from step four.

And in addition to ending bubbles, the DfE will no longer require schools to "stagger start and finish times".

Mr Williamson added: "Schools and colleges may, of course, continue with these measures until the end of the summer term if they so wish."

Contingency plans to be kept on ice

Schools are being encouraged to prepare to reintroduce masks, bubbles and other protective measures in the event of local outbreaks. 

Today's DfE guidance says schools should make sure that their contingency plans "cover the possibility that in some local areas it may become necessary to reintroduce 'bubbles' for a temporary period".

But it adds that "any decision to recommend the reintroduction of 'bubbles' would not be taken lightly and would need to take account of the detrimental impact they can have on the delivery of education".

If an outbreak occurs within a school, the DfE also says that a director of public health might advise that masks should temporarily be worn in communal areas or classrooms by pupils, staff and visitors, unless exempt.

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the NAHT school leaders' union, warned that by "shifting responsibility to schools for development and implementation of continency arrangements", the government "must not simply wash their hands of the problem".

"Going forward, it is essential that school leaders are given the full backing of government to do what is necessary to maintain education and keep pupils and the school community safe," he added.

No more contact tracing for schools

In a development that has sparked some confusion among heads  especially at primary level  the DfE now says that schools will no longer need to carry out contact tracing from 19 July.

Instead, NHS Test and Trace will work with positive cases to identify close contacts.

The guidance for schools says: "Until step four, we expect you to continue to fulfil your contact tracing responsibilities. Where a case is identified, the designated staff member should initiate contact tracing procedures. There is no requirement that a staff member should be on call for the whole day

"From step four, close contacts will be identified via NHS Test and Trace. You may be contacted in exceptional cases to identify close contacts, as currently happens in managing other infectious diseases. You will continue to have a role in working with health protection teams in the case of a local outbreak."

This implies that, from 19 July, NHS Test and Trace will be directly contacting children who test positive to identify who may be at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Tes asked the DfE if this would effectively mean that pupils, including those of primary age, were expected to work with the NHS to identify their own close contacts. The department is yet to provide an answer.

Mr Williamson said today: "We'll be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace systems. Where there are outbreaks, schools and colleges may be contacted by NHS Test and Trace, and they will also work with local health teams, as they currently do now."

Mr Brook said it was "certainly about time that NHS Test and Trace step forward to take responsibility from school leaders for contact tracing and managing outbreaks".

And Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: "We have repeatedly argued that the responsibility for contact tracing should not fall on school and college staff because this is a public health duty, so this change is welcome, if overdue."

But Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, questioned "how effective a public test, track and trace system will be and how much it will control cases in schools".

Pupil close contacts won't have to isolate next term

The government announced today that, from 16 August, those aged under 18 will no longer be required to self-isolate if they are told by NHS Test and Trace that they are a close contact of a positive Covid case.

Instead, they will be encouraged to take a PCR test. They will then only need to isolate if they test positive.

This rule change will apply to all schoolchildren from the beginning of the autumn term.

For the remainder of the summer term, any child identified as a close contact of a positive case by NHS Test and Trace will be required to self-isolate as normal.

The DfE said that testing for close contacts under 18 will be split into two categories. All primary and secondary pupils should take a single PCR test. Children in the early years should only take a PCR test if a member of their household tests positive.

Testing to be reviewed at the end of September

The new DfE guidance says that, as children will "potentially mix with lots of other people during the summer holidays", all secondary students should receive two on-site lateral flow tests, three to five days apart, when they return in the autumn term.

It adds that schools may start testing from three working days before the start of term, and can stagger the return of pupils across the first week to manage this.

Students and staff should then continue to test twice weekly at home until the end of September, at which point the guidance will be reviewed.

The DfE also says that secondary schools should retain a small asymptomatic testing site on their premises until further notice, to assist students who cannot test at home.

Meanwhile, there is "no need" for primary pupils to test over the summer. 

Those transferring to secondary schools will be offered their two tests on-site at the beginning of the autumn term.

However, schools have the option to start testing Year 6 pupils earlier, including in summer schools, depending on their local circumstances.

Mr Barton said: "The requirement for secondary school and college students to be given two on-site Covid tests at the start of the autumn term is a huge logistical exercise which has once again been landed on leaders and their staff without much thought.

"The government must step up to the mark and provide them with significant support to deliver this public health requirement. We will continue to push for this to happen."

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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