Headteachers are warning that school communities could face a Covid "culture shock" when they return in September to a different system for controlling the virus.
And school leaders fear they will be left facing questions and confusion from parents when coronavirus controls are relaxed and self-isolation is no longer required for pupils who appear have been in contact with a Covid case.
The warning from the NAHT school leaders’ union comes as analysis by Tes shows that new government guidelines which said that schools would not be responsible for contact tracing were actually ignored in large swathes of the country in the final week of term.
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In at least 23 council areas of England, schools were asked by local authority public health teams to carry on identifying Covid contacts and asking them to isolate.
Covid controls changing
As part of the government’s decision to move the country to Step 4 on 19 July, schools are no longer be expected to identify the contacts of Covid cases.
Instead, the government has said that this is to be done by NHS Test and Trace. Schools have been told to expect only a small number of Covid contacts to be identified now that this job is being done by the NHS service, and that they will not be contacted unless they need to help manage an outbreak at their school.
This will be in stark contrast to the last academic year, where whole bubbles were sent home – which culminated in just over 1.1 million pupils being out of school earlier this month because of the pandemic.
The other major change coming is that by the start of the new term in September, pupils who are identified as contacts will not need to self isolate at all and will be asked to take a PCR test instead. This change is due to apply from August 16.
Commenting on the changes, James Bowen, the NAHT’s director of policy, said: “From everything I have heard, NHS Test and Trace will be taking a very different approach in identifying who Covid contacts are. They are going to be looking for evidence of prolonged contact and are going to be identifying a much smaller number of people as contacts of a Covid case in a school.
“That is going to a big change from this term, where schools have been sending bubbles home to self-isolate on public health advice.
“Not only this but from next term, of course, contacts will not have to self isolate – they will be asked to take a PCR test.”
Mr Bowen added: “I think there is a concern that this is quite a considerable change for schools to manage and my worry is that once again schools are going to be caught in the middle with parents who might want to know why if there has been a Covid case in their child’s class why nothing is happening and nobody is being asked to self isolate.
“Going from an entire bubble isolating to perhaps only a handful of people being asked to take a PCR test really could be a culture shock and it will be headteachers who have to field parents’ questions about this even though they will not be the ones making the decisions anymore.”
The government intended a big part of this change to come into effect in the last week of term with NHS Test and Trace taking over Covid contact tracing.
DfE Covid contact guidance was being ignored across the country
However, Tes can reveal that, in local authority areas across the country, schools were asked to continue identifying Covid contacts in the final week of term – contradicting government guidance.
Tes asked all education authorities in England if they were following the new government guidelines or if they had asked schools to carry on contact tracing.
Of the 49 councils that provided definitive replies 23, said that they had asked schools to carry on and another six said they were aware of schools who were still contact tracing in their area in the final week of term.
In total, 21 said that they had not asked schools to do this and were following the new government guidelines that this should now be done by NHS Test and Trace – although in three of these areas they said that they were aware some schools were still contact tracing.
Jonny Uttley, chief executive of the Education Alliance Trust, which runs academies in Hull and the East Riding, where local public health teams asked schools to carry on contact tracing, has questioned why the country had two different systems operating in schools depending on whether councils accepted or ignored government guidance.
'We effectively had two separate systems in place'
He said: “We now have a situation where parents, pupils and teachers chances of being caught up in Covid disruption and potentially having their holidays affected this week have varied massively depending on where they live, because it appears that in many places across the country the DfE's new guidance was being dismissed. We effectively had two separate systems in place.
“In all of this, as the country unlocks, we need to remember how crushing it is for a young person and their parents to be told they must isolate for 10 days at the start of a school holiday when so many people are going about their daily lives, exercising their personal judgements.”
Hull City Council issued a public statement about why it was expecting schools to carry on contact tracing in the final week of term.
Its public health director, Julia Weldon, said: “I have asked schools and colleges in Hull to continue to work with my public health team to identify the close contacts of cases until the end of term.
"Those who are asked to isolate may hear via the national Test and Trace system, but they may still be notified by their child’s school where this is quicker and more effective.
“I do understand how frustrating and disruptive it is to have a child isolating. But by doing this, we will help prevent further staff and pupils from catching Covid before the end of term, some of whom will be really poorly.”
A spokesperson for Waltham Forest Council said: “The approach we agreed with schools was to carry on with the same arrangements as they had been using all term
“As [Wednesday of that week] was the last day for many of our schools it seemed ridiculous to change it.”
Tes has asked the DfE if it had contacted councils which had asked schools to carry on contract tracing in the last week of term and in doing so contradicted the department's own guidance. The DfE did not respond.
Although the government has made clear it expects schools to no longer routinely carry out contact tracing from now on, what is less clear is why the definition of what a Covid contact is appears to be changing.
Who is a close contact: a classmate or a someone on a sleepover?
Guidance sent to schools before the end of term suggested that only a small number of contacts would now be identified by NHS Test and Trace and gave the example of someone who had been on a sleepover.
It said: “Contacts in an educational setting will be traced if the positive case specifically identified an individual as having close, prolonged contact which will normally have occurred in a social setting, eg, sleepovers."
But Mr Uttley has questioned why this government guidance sent to school was not being recognised by local public health officials.
He said: “The final week of term was extraordinary with schools stuck in the middle between guidance that the DfE gave to schools and processes that public health colleagues need schools to follow.
“While schools had been told we would no longer be contacted tracing and parents had been told, in effect, that criteria for a close contact would be different from 19 July, in conversations with public health teams, this week, it has become apparent that this is not something those on the ground recognise.
“Throughout the pandemic, our local PH teams have been enormously supportive of schools in the most challenging circumstances. It is beyond frustrating to discover that the DfE’s information to schools bears no relation to reality on the ground. The DfE appear to suggest that a contact is someone who has had a sleepover; public health say it is still someone who has been within two metres for 15 minutes indoors.
“Why are there seemingly two totally different definitions of what a close contact is?”
Tes has put this question to the DfE. It has not responded.
Can children identify who their close contacts are?
The other big uncertainty is how will close contacts within a school will be identified if NHS Test and Trace is not routinely calling schools.
The guidance sent to schools says this will be achieved by teams asking the children themselves or their parents.
It says pupils or their parent or guardian will be asked specific questions by the NHS Test and Trace teams, "to help them understand what is meant by a close contact, making it easier for them to be identified".
But Mr Bowen said: "It is an obvious concern that primary aged pupils will not be able to identify close contacts when Test and Trace call."
Will September bring an end to Covid disruption?
From September, schools will have gone from a position of making decisions about entire class groups being expected to self-isolate at the end of term to not being directly involved in this at all.
And when a case emerges the chances are it will only result in a small number of pupils being invited to take a PCR test rather than having an entire class self isolating.
The Association of School and College Leaders has already voiced concern about what then happens if these PCR tests are not taken by pupils who are identified as contacts.
Speaking to Tes earlier this month, Julie McCulloch, the union’s director of policy, said “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.
“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."
And this week, the NAHT has sounded a warning about whether plans are in place for combating the spread of Covid-19 from September.
General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “In the last few weeks of term, schools saw a huge drop in attendance.
“While much of this was due to pupils isolating, there was, unfortunately, a sharp rise in the number of confirmed and suspected Covid cases in schools too.
“It is clear that this level of disruption cannot continue next year. However, the government needs to address the root cause of the problem, and not just the symptoms.”
Mr Whiteman added: “Removing the requirement for close contacts to automatically self-isolate will no doubt reduce absence figures, but it is important thegGovernment does more to actively reduce case numbers amongst children and transmission in schools.
“There is so much more the government could be doing to give parents and school staff confidence ahead of the new school year and, ultimately, to make schools safer.”
From next term, the huge numbers of pupils we have seen self-isolating will drop sharply. But with seemingly fewer Covid controls in place in schools what will that mean for the spread of the virus, the disruption it can still bring and the pressure faced by schools?
Areas where councils asked schools to continue contact tracing in the final week of term
Barking and Dagenham
Isle of Wight