Ending Covid restrictions: Deep concern over lack of detail

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
To isolate or not to isolate: If Covid restrictions are removed entirely, how will schools handle cases of Covid among staff and pupikls? (Image: Adobe Stock)

Boris Johnson’s plans to scrap all Covid restrictions, including the need to self-isolate after testing positive, risk causing chaos in schools without clear guidance.

Headteachers fear that, once again, they will be left high and dry with little advance warning if guidance is issued ahead of the proposed lifting of restrictions – and it is still an “if”.

The prime minister announced last week that he hopes to lift all restrictions early – on February 24 – sparking warnings from some scientists that he was moving too quickly and sending a dangerous signal that the pandemic had ended.

The move could also leave schools having to decide upon their own approach to pupils and staff who test positive. Education unions have called for guidance and “absolute clarity of messaging” from ministers.

Speaking to Headteacher Update this week, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, admitted he was “concerned” about the “lack of information over how the government’s ‘living with Covid’ strategy will affect schools and colleges”.

He told us: “Once again, the government has announced a sketchy national plan, which obviously has implications for how transmission is controlled in schools and colleges, without the vital detail that the sector requires.

“While schools and colleges have become expert at adapting to rapid changes of plan, there will be some serious concerns raised by the prime minister’s announcement last week among students and their families as well as for staff, who continue to suffer high rates of Covid-related absence.”

The latest attendance figures show that 48,000 teachers and school leaders (9.1%) were absent from schools on February 3. In particular, 23% of all state-funded schools had more than 15% of their teachers and school leaders absent. Meanwhile, 320,000 pupils (3.9%) in state-funded schools were off for Covid-related reasons on February 3.

Mr Barton continued: “We do understand the desire to ‘live with Covid’ rather than to press on with a battery of control measures indefinitely, but this does need to be done with a degree of care.

“Our fear is that the detail schools and colleges need will be supplied with little advance warning, as has happened on so many occasions before, and that leadership teams will then have to scramble to make sense of it and implement the new guidance.”

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said last week that it would be “naïve” to think that lifting restrictions would end the disruption in schools. Indeed, it is hard to see the absence figures improving in a world without restrictions or isolation requirements.

It seems clear that should restrictions go without subsequent guidance, headteachers will be left to grapple with a moral dilemma over what it asks staff and pupils to do in cases of infection.

UNISON was quick to warn last week that government must act to prevent a “super spreader free-for-all” in workplaces. General secretary Christina McAnea called for “clear, detailed guidance” to support employers.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said that schools need “clarity from public health advisors about when pupils and staff do still need to stay at home”.

He added: “For example, current NHS advice says that children who have been absent with a sickness bug should stay away from schools for two days after their symptoms have gone. It would seem very strange to have a lower bar for Covid than some other illnesses. Absolute clarity of messaging will be required here.”

Many schools will not want to leave it to individual choice, but the potential for some employers to insist that staff continue to work despite virus risks or even penalising staff for staying away has also been noted by trade unions.

Mr Whiteman said the government will need to explain “in clear and unambiguous terms why they think the lifting of all restrictions should apply to schools at this point”.

He continued: “The current reality is that we’re seeing very high numbers of pupils and staff, particularly at primary, catching and becoming ill with Covid.

“While thankfully for most people, the symptoms appear to be relatively mild, large numbers are still unwell enough to have to miss school, not because of the requirement to self-isolate, but because they are simply not well enough to be in school. While this change may, in some cases, reduce the amount of time pupils and staff are absent for, it won’t stop those absences altogether.”

UNISON says that employers could quickly find themselves “at odds with existing health and safety regulations”.

Ms McAnea added: “Putting a match to sensible safety measures, without providing guidance to employers, is reckless and will cause confusion and alarm. People will take the virus into work and school, risking the health of colleagues and commuters. Anyone vulnerable will rightly feel they've been flung under the bus.

“It will be a nightmare for employers struggling to protect staff from a potential super spreader free-for-all. Ministers must quickly get to grips with the situation and provide clarity to employers and workers in every sector of the economy.”

Covid workforce fund extended

Meanwhile, the Department for Education has extended the Covid-19 Workforce Fund until Friday, April 8. However, schools are still frustrated that the bar to apply is set too high. Updated guidance is expected soon, but hopes are not high that the eligibility criteria will change. Currently, schools must use any existing financial reserves before they can claim money back for staffing supply costs due to Covid.

Commenting, Mr Barton said: "The bar for eligibility to the fund is set far too high and requires schools to have below a certain level of reserves in order to qualify for support. That means the funding on offer is out of reach for many schools and it has always been our view that it should be made available as widely as possible and without so many caveats."

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