From Covid restrictions to personal responsibility: Will people do the right thing?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Personal responsibility: The advice remains that those with positive tests should self-isolate for five days, yet this is no longer the law (Image: Adobe Stock)

Can we rely on families “doing the right thing” and keeping children off school if they have symptoms or test positive for Covid? That is the key question playing on the minds of school leaders as self-isolation rules are axed.

As of Thursday (February 24), the legal requirement for people to self-isolate following a positive test is no more. In addition, fully vaccinated close contacts and those aged under-18 are no longer being asked to test daily for seven days.

Routine contact-tracing is also ending and, in schools, regular testing for staff and students is no longer recommended other than for SEND and alternative provision settings and SEND units in mainstream schools.

The Department for Education says that “staff, children and young people who are contacts should attend their education settings as usual”. This includes staff who have been in close contact within their household, “unless they are able to work from home” (DfE, 2022).

Prime minister Boris Johnson said the country was moving from “government restrictions to personal responsibility”.

However, adults and children who test positive are still being “advised” to stay at home and avoid contact with others for at least five days, and then follow the guidance until they record two negative test results on consecutive days.

The DfE’s key message to parents this week was: “If a child has any of the main symptoms or a positive test result, the public health advice remains unchanged and is to stay at home and avoid contact with other people.”

The UK Health Security Agency is to publish updated guidance on Thursday (February 24) in light of the removal of Covid isolation and testing requirements.

The next steps of the government’s Living with Covid strategy (Cabinet Office, 2022) entail removing Covid sick pay provisions on March 24 and ending the supply of free testing for the general public on April 1.

It leaves schools having to make some quick decisions over what policies to put in place.

Advice from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) sent to its members this week reminded them that if a parent or carer insists on a pupil with confirmed or suspected Covid attending, schools can “take the decision to refuse the pupil if, in your reasonable judgement, it is necessary to protect other pupils and staff from possible infection with Covid-19”.

Paul Haigh, headteacher at King Ecgbert School in Sheffield, said that Boris Johnson’s announcement did “feel sudden”, but he is clear that the public health advice remains in place and his school would be following it.

He told SecEd: “Self-isolation has legally ended but the public health advice is clear – you are still advised to self-isolate if you know you have Covid, it’s just not legally enforceable.”

He is confident that most people will do the right thing: “If you know you have an infectious disease many people will want to do the right thing and stay away from school – it’s not going to be a good feeling if you know you’re infectious and might have put a vulnerable person at risk.

“So I think nothing will change overnight in schools around staff and students being away, but hopefully as infection rates continue to fall, we will see less and less absence.”

Indeed, attendance figures published this week (DfE, 2022) show that infections are falling. On February 10, 182,000 pupils did not attend school for Covid-related reasons, down from 320,000 on February 3. This includes 136,000 with a confirmed case (down from 250,000).

It means attendance was 90.3% on February 10, up from 89.1% on February 3.

Meanwhile, 40,000 teachers (7.5%) and 52,000 support staff (7.3%) were absent on February 10, down from 48,000 and 64,000 respectively on February 3. It is hoped that the half-term break will have further helped the situation.

Another headteacher from the East of England, speaking to SecEd anonymously, said that it isn’t a simple “switch on/switch off” of rules as pupils, staff and families all have different “risk thresholds” and perceptions of the issues. And this nuanced picture will no doubt continue.

He added: “For example, since masks were no longer required in classes or communal areas, we still have a minority of pupils who feel more assured wearing them, and staff members, likewise, in some instances feel obliged to wear a face covering to reassure vulnerable family members (such as elderly parents who they live with).”

One Nottinghamshire primary headteacher said they did not want Covid isolation to end and would be asking children and staff to test if they have symptoms.

They told SecEd: “We will be using the government guidance that still says to isolate for five days and test on day six and seven before returning – the guidance is still there; it’s just no longer law.” The school will stop asking staff to test twice weekly, however.

The headteacher added: “I suspect there are many parents who just want to send their children in as they are not ‘ill’, and they will just send them anyway. All of my staff have been ill when positive (some very ill) and surely we need to retain teachers in front of our classes and therefore need children to isolate to protect our staff.

“Schools cannot cope without staff and getting access to supply staff is a miracle these days – not that we can afford them any longer if we get them.”

This seems to be at the crux of the issue. No requirement to self-isolate makes more transmission likely and more problems with staff absence as more people get ill.

General secretary of ASCL, Geoff Barton, echoed this very warning: “By removing the legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive test, along with twice-weekly testing for pupils and staff in schools and colleges, there is a risk that this may actually lead to an increase in disruption if it means that more positive cases come into the classroom.

“Staff and pupils are often absent not just because they test positive but because they are actually ill with the coronavirus, and this will obviously not abate if there is more transmission.”

He added: “We are also concerned about where this leaves vulnerable staff and pupils, or those with a household member who is vulnerable. These individuals will inevitably feel more scared and less protected by the relaxation of even the fairly limited control measures that are currently in place.”

Mr Barton also raised the concern that the move from law to advice could “open the door for conflict with parents who may interpret symptoms that may or may not be coronavirus differently from their child’s teachers”.

The view was echoed by the National Association of Head Teachers, whose general secretary Paul Whiteman called for “clear and unambiguous guidance” so that schools and parents have “a clear understanding of what to do should a child or member of staff have Covid”.

He added: “Without that clarity, there is a real risk the government could create a chaotic situation in schools and put school leaders in an impossible position. We simply cannot expect schools to manage this on an individual basis, there must be clear guidance from the public health experts.”

Back in Sheffield, Mr Haigh added: “All the way through, most parents have been very supportive, understanding and sympathetic about the challenge we’ve faced but whatever decision we’ve taken, for example around masks or vaccination, we can never please everyone so in the end we’ve based our policies on the advice of public health experts as we can defend that.”

Another headteacher from the Midlands is hoping for more detailed guidance from the UK Health Security Agency on Thursday (February 24). She added: “We know we aren’t going to please all parents or students all the time and there is a wide spectrum of parental views and opinions within even the same setting. Following government guidance gives us as heads some protection I feel. Parents can be cross with Boris and not us!”

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