Roadmap Step 4: Relief and anxiety amid rising Covid absences

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The end of schools having to manage huge test, track and trace operations has been welcomed, but there is anxiety and caution over the government’s dramatic relaxation of Covid safety measures.

School leaders point out that the move to Step 4 of the government’s Covid “roadmap” from July 19 comes in the face of rising case numbers and with more than 640,000 students currently out of school self-isolating.

Prime minister Boris Johnson confirmed the move to Step 4 on Monday (July 5) and a day later education secretary Gavin Williamson published new guidance for schools (DfE, 2021a).

The short, 16-page document removes the requirement for student bubbles, staggered start and finish times and social distancing from July 19, although schools can choose to continue with measures until the end of term

Face-coverings will also no longer be advised for pupils, staff or visitors. However, measures could be re-introduced on a school-by-school basis dependent on local outbreaks.

Furthermore, the guidance says that from August 16, children (and adults who are fully vaccinated) will no longer have to self-isolate if they are a Covid close contact. This means that from the autumn term, only those who test positive will need to self-isolate.

And from July 19, NHS Test and Trace will take over the work to identify close contacts, which will mean fewer contacts having to isolate. Those identified as close contacts will be advised to take a PCR test, and only need to isolate if they test positive. Children will have to self-isolate if they have symptoms of Covid or a positive test result.

The guidance states: “NHS Test and Trace will work with the positive case to identify close contacts. Contacts from a school setting will only be traced by NHS Test and Trace where the positive case specifically identifies the individual as being a close contact. This is likely to be a small number of individuals. You may be contacted in exceptional cases to help with identifying close contacts, as currently happens in managing other infectious diseases.”

School leaders have welcomed the impending end to their test and trace obligations but remain concerned.

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said there was a “sense of real concern among many that the worsening situation they see before their eyes is at odds with the government’s narrative of relaxation and return to normality”.

He added: “Schools have seen a near doubling of children contracting Covid-19, with 28,000 confirmed cases reported in the last week alone. School leaders and parents alike will want more reassurance than has been given so far that removal of restrictions is supported by scientific evidence, not driven by political convenience.”

Mr Brook said he welcomed the move to using NHS Test and Trace but is concerned about a lack of clarity: “It is certainly about time that NHS Test and Trace step forward to take responsibility from school leaders for contact tracing and managing outbreaks. However, it would be extremely concerning if government were to lurch from one extreme to the other, should there be no clear requirement on pupils that have come into very close contact with Covid to test and remain at home for that short period while awaiting results. We urge government to set out expectations and clarify how this will work in practice.”

It comes as the latest attendance figures show that more than 640,000 pupils were off school for Covid-related reasons on July 1 – the majority of whom were self-isolating due to a potential contact (DfE, 2021b).

It means that Covid-related pupil absence in state schools is currently at its highest rate since schools fully re-opened in March.

In percentage terms, 8.5 per cent of students were off due to Covid-related reasons on July 1, up from 5.1 per cent on June 24 and 3.3 per cent on June 17. In primary schools, absence was 7.4 per cent on July 1 (up from 4.5 per cent and 2.7 per cent respectively). In secondary schools, absence was 10.4 per cent on July 1 (up from 6.2 per cent and 4.2 per cent).

Elsewhere, the new DfE guidance says that in September secondary schools should give students two on-site lateral flow tests, three to five days apart, on their return to the site. Secondary schools should also “retain a small asymptomatic testing site on-site until further notice”.

Headteachers are urged to identify poorly ventilated areas of their school site and take steps to improve air flow. Remote education provision must also be maintained. And schools will also have the power to refuse any pupils who have Covid symptoms should their parents insist upon attendance.

Mr Williamson said: “While the pandemic is not over, we are moving into a new phase of managing Covid, from strict rules and towards personal responsibility. The measures we will have after summer strike the right balance as we learn to live with the virus so children can get on with their lives and education in the best possible way.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “It is important to note that this is not an all-or-nothing situation, and a system of controls will remain in place, including the flexibility to reintroduce more stringent measures in the event of local outbreaks of coronavirus. This will be logistically challenging but seems a prudent and reassuring safeguard.”

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