With schools reopening next week and the coronavirus pandemic still very active, we asked the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the NAHT school leaders' union and the Department for Education to explain the guidance around what should happen if a teacher shows symptoms and then tests positive for Covid-19.
What should a teacher or school staff member do if they, or a member of their family, suspect they have the coronavirus?
When a teacher suspects they or a member of their household has the coronavirus, they should self-isolate immediately and organise to be tested.
If the test comes back negative, the teacher can return to work as normal.
If the test comes back positive, the DfE says "rapid action" to protect their class and staff in their setting should take place.
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What should 'rapid action' look like?
The ASCL and the NAHT both explain that for the teacher, the current advice dictates 10 days of isolation after testing positive (assuming the person is well enough after this time to either return to work and/or cease self-isolation).
The symptoms of a cough or loss of sense of smell or taste may continue for longer time, and it is fine for teachers to return to work with these symptoms. However, teachers should not return to work if they have a high temperature.
For the school, the advice is to follow the locally agreed protocols within their local authority/trust.
This is likely to dictate that anyone who has been in close contact with the teacher should self-isolate for up to 14 days and take a test if they develop symptoms.
Close contact covers the following:
- Direct close contacts – face-to-face contact with an infected individual for any length of time, within one metre, including being coughed on, a face-to-face conversation or unprotected physical contact (skin-to-skin).
- Proximity contacts – extended close contact (within one or two metres for more than 15 minutes) with an infected individual.
- Travelling in a small vehicle, like a car, with an infected person.
Ultimately, it will be for the health protection team to decide who meets this criteria and whether it is necessary for individuals to self-isolate for 14 days.
If the students and staff deemed 'close contacts' have also been in contact with other groups of students and staff, should they also self-isolate?
The ASCL says that this should only happen if the individual in the "close contacts" group themselves tests positive for the coronavirus.
The NAHT says this is why it is so important to ensure that, while in school, groups are kept as separate as possible.
How long does 'contact' have to be with a teacher or student who has tested positive to warrant self-isolation?
The ASCL and NAHT both say that the NHS guidance states the following as close contact:
- Close face-to-face contact (under one metre) for any length of time – including talking to them or coughing on them.
- Being within one to two metres of each other for more than 15 minutes – including travelling in a small vehicle.
- Spending lots of time in your home, such as cleaning it.
However, the guidance does state that being in close contact does not always warrant self-isolation.
"Any members of staff who have helped someone with symptoms and any pupils who have been in close contact with them do not need to go home to self-isolate unless they develop symptoms themselves (in which case, they should arrange a test) or if the symptomatic person subsequently tests positive (see below) or they have been requested to do so by NHS Test and Trace."
If it is proven that a teacher or school staff member was infected with the coronavirus at work and the school has not followed the DfE guidelines, does that member of staff have any legal recourse?
The ASCL says that this would ultimately be for the courts to decide on the basis of the individual facts/circumstances.
The situation is, in effect, no different than pre-Covid.
The ASCL says that where an employee suffers a detriment as a result of their employer’s negligent actions, there may be a legal liability.
The NAHT says this is why it would suggest that all schools should be working within the guidelines from Public Health England and the protective measures that have been set out.
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Usually, if someone was to take any action, it would be with an employer, not an individual. So legal action would be taken against the local authority, for example.
Will a teacher or school staff member still be paid if they have to self-isolate?
The NAHT and the ASCL both say that where staff are self-isolating as a result of government advice (which includes self-isolating where someone in your "bubble" tests positive), they are entitled to full pay.
What can a school do if a member of staff or student refuses to take a coronavirus test? Should people who have been in contact with them isolate as a precaution?
The DfE states that:
- All schools have a duty of care for pupils and staff and we therefore expect them to take necessary actions, as appropriate, in regard to the health and safety of their pupils and staff.
- School leaders have been asked to carry out careful risk assessments and put in place protective measures to reduce the risk of transmission in a way that works for their school.
- All employers have a duty to consult employees on health and safety policies, and they are best placed to understand the risks in individual settings.
- As our published guidance outlines, if or when a teacher displays symptoms, they should self-isolate for at least seven days. Other members of their household should self-isolate for 14 days from when they first had symptoms.
- Further guidance on steps to take when there is a confirmed case of the coronavirus in a setting is available here.
The NAHT says nobody can be forced to take a medical test, so if you have someone who is exhibiting symptoms that look like coronavirus, you should proceed as if they have contracted the virus.
Ultimately, you should suggest they do a test for their own safety, and it should be encouraged for their own wellbeing and health.