Teachers call for clarity over infection rate 'thresholds' for school closures

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

Teachers have called for more detailed contingency plans for potential local lockdowns, including clarity about the infection rate thresholds at which school closures could or should be triggered.

A motion debated during an online conference of the National Education Union (NEU) this weekend urges pressure be put on government to offer more clarity about when schools will need to close.

It also calls on NEU reps at school level to “regularly review the safety of full opening in their schools and colleges” and is asking that government provides more detailed guidance and resources for blended learning provision.

The online event took place on Saturday (October 3) and the motion – which was passed by members – also instructs the NEU to set-up a working group to look at strategies to develop blended learning.

The motion states: “The union wants schools and colleges to be open for as many pupils as possible but achieving this safely depends on how effectively wider public health measures keep virus infection and reproduction (R) rates low.

“Conference calls on the government and public health authorities to prepare more detailed contingency plans for possible local or wider school closures by being clear about the infection/R rate thresholds at which schools/colleges in an area should close or move to smaller class sizes, including detailed guidance and resources for blended learning provision.”

The motion itself did not proposed an infection rate threshold. A proposed amendment suggested that schools should implement a maximum class size of 15 in areas where the infection rate exceeds 20 new cases per 100,000 over seven days and that “only priority pupils should attend classes in person” when rates exceed 50 per 100,000 over seven days. However, this was not discussed.

Likewise, another amendment suggesting class sizes of 15 in Public Health England’s (PHE) “areas of concern” and only priority pupils should attend schools in “areas of intervention” – the highest risk category – was not discussed.

It comes as the NEU has launched a new website which uses government data to show the Covid-19 infection rate in a school’s locality and whether the area is on the PHE watchlist or an intervention area.

The data shows that there are currently 5,836 schools in the PHE “areas of intervention”, where local restrictions have been introduced. As of September 25, there are 48 local authorities in this category (PHE, 2020) with a wide range of infection rates. For more on the NEU website, see our report here.

Speaking on Wednesday during a press conference ahead of the NEU conference, joint general secretary Kevin Courtney would not be drawn on whether he would like to see any specific threshold for triggering school closures or reduced class sizes, adding that the amendments were not guaranteed to be adopted.

He said: “Everything we are talking about is asking the government to do everything they can to get cases falling without having to reach that stage of school closures.”

However, he did draw comparisons with the government’s threshold for categorising countries as high risk (and therefore requiring returning travellers to quarantine), which currently stands at 20 new cases per 100,000.

The areas listed as areas of concern or intervention by the PHE have a wide range of infection rates, from 196.6 per 100,000 in Bolton and 24.3 in Lancaster (both areas of intervention) to 49.9 in Hertsmere and 13.7 in Sutton, both areas of concern.

The government’s guidance for managing local outbreaks in relation to schools, published at the end of last term (DfE, 2020a, 2020b), does not set out infection rate thresholds either, but instead details four tiers of local response and says that local authorities, local directors of public health, and national government are responsible for deciding when an area should change tiers. The tiers are:

  • Tier 1: Fully open to all pupils full-time, with face coverings required in corridors and communal areas for pupils in year 7 and above.
  • Tier 2: Secondary schools and colleges in a restricted area to use rotas to help break chains of transmission of coronavirus. Primary schools, alternative provision and special schools remain open to all pupils.
  • Tier 3: Secondary schools only allow full-time on-site provision to vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and selected year groups (to be identified by the DfE). Remote education provided to all other pupils. Primary schools, alternative provision and special schools remain open to all pupils.
  • Tier 4: All mainstream schools only allow full-time on-site provision to priority groups. Remote education provided to all other pupils. Alternative provision and special schools remain open to all pupils.

The NEU prefers an option at Tier 2 of reducing class sizes rather than moving to a rota system and the debate on Saturday could touch upon its calls for “Nightingale classrooms” to be set up.

The idea is that drafting in retired, supply and newly qualified teachers and expanding school space by setting up classrooms in the same vein as the Nightingale hospitals will help to reduce class sizes in schools.

A proposed amendment to the motion includes a call on government for “investment in additional school buildings and ‘Nightingale’ schools to create more schools and smaller classes”.

Meanwhile, another motion at the NEU conference is to call for SATs in 2021 to be replaced by “a system of moderated teacher assessment” and for a mixed model for GCSE and A levels in 2021 including “reduced content and moderated teacher assessment”.

On SATs, the motion asks headteachers and governors to “refuse to require preparation for SATs, instead concentrating all resources on recovery”.

Speaking on Wednesday, Dr Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said that the government’s plans to delay the 2021 exams by a week or two was an “inadequate response”. She also said that the “minimal alterations” to the exam syllabuses announced by Ofqual are “increasingly untenable”.

The motion also calls for a suspension of Ofsted inspections and performance tables. Dr Bousted added: “The idea that it is in any way helpful or supportive to schools in these extraordinary times to receive a visit from school inspectors is just unbelievable. It is literally beyond belief.”

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