Pupils who come into contact with Covid cases next term will be allowed back into school regardless of whether they have taken a PCR test, headteachers are warning.
The government is relaxing the need for pupils to self-isolate from next month, with those identified as contacts advised to get a Covid PCR test.
But school leaders are questioning what will happen if these tests are not taken, and fear a failure to mandate PCRs could lead to more asymptomatic cases in the classroom.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, told Tes: “Our reading of the guidance for contact tracing from 16 August is that the NHS Test and Trace process will be very different from the current approach used by schools and colleges.
Warning over school pupils not taking Covid tests
“Those who are contacted will not be required to isolate and will instead be encouraged to take a PCR test. The wording of the guidance suggests that this will be purely advisory and that there will be nothing to stop a contact who fails to heed this advice from attending school or college as normal.
“If anyone in a school or college develops Covid symptoms, the guidance advises they should be sent home. However, there is clearly a risk of asymptomatic cases in the classroom if a contact fails to follow advice to take a test and continues to attend school or college."
Jonny Uttley, chief executive of the Education Alliance multi-academy trust in East Yorkshire, raised similar concerns.
He said: “Once rules change around self-isolation, it will be absolutely vital that anyone asked by NHS Test and Trace to take a PCR actually does so before returning to school.
"It is difficult to see how schools will play any meaningful role in stopping the future spread of the virus if large numbers of people could choose to ignore the request. It is really surprising that this can become entirely optional."
Tim Bowen, president of the NAHT school leaders' union, also raised this concern during an all-parliamentary group session on Covid-19 today.
He said: "One concern we do have is to do with the NHS Test and Trace system. We think it's absolutely right that they are taking responsibility for this from school leaders...However, our concern is that at present there appears to be no clear requirements on pupils that have come into very close contact with Covid – in other words, a member of their family has it – to test and await results.
"We hope most would do so, but there may be some families who would still send their children into school and there is nothing at the moment stopping that happening. We do urge the government to set out expectations and clarify how this will work in practice."
The government has said that, from 16 August, children under the age of 18 will no longer be required to self-isolate if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case.
Updated guidance from the Department for Education says: “Instead, children will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test. We would encourage all individuals to take a PCR test if advised to do so.”
However, the guidance does not say what would happen if people do not take a PCR test as advised.
The government has also been carrying out a trial of using lateral flow Covid tests every day as an alternative to self-isolation.
During the trials, staff and pupils who were identified as close contacts were asked to take a daily rapid test and could continue attending school if they tested negative for Covid.
The trial has now concluded and education secretary Gavin Williamson has said that he will be looking at the outcomes of it “as we consider a new model for keeping children in education".
However, it was not mentioned in the latest guidance published last week.
Ms McCulloch added: “This new approach obviously represents a significant relaxation of the current measures for managing Covid cases. It is aimed at reducing disruption caused by the existing requirement for contacts of positive cases to isolate and in light of the reduced risks from coronavirus in wider society because of the vaccination programme.
“However, removing so many of the current measures at once runs the risk of a major upsurge in Covid cases among children and young people next term, which could lead to further widespread educational disruption as well as the obvious public health concerns.
“We urge the government to help mitigate these risks by providing substantial support to secondary schools and colleges in carrying out on-site asymptomatic testing at the beginning of the autumn term, to make funding available for high-quality ventilation systems in schools and colleges, and to provide greater clarity about the process for managing localised outbreaks of the virus, and we urge the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to make a decision urgently over the question of vaccines for children aged 12 and over.”
A Government spokesperson said: "Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we can safely take steps to reduce self-isolation for people who are fully vaccinated, and those aged under 18, and instead advise people to take a PCR test. Positive cases will still need to self-isolate.
“Secondary schools and colleges have also been asked to offer two tests on site for each student next term, and will have flexibility to begin testing before the start of term if they choose."