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What Parents Need To Know As Their Kids Go Back To School

Written by on January 5, 2022

Yes, Christmas is finally over and pupils are finally going back to school this week, but not without concerns among parents about the rules their children need to follow and how the rise of Omicron may affect the start of the term.

Despite daily Covid cases topping 200,000 for the first time on Tuesday, at a Downing Street press conference, prime minister Boris Johnson told the media and public: “We can keep our schools and businesses open and find a way to live with this virus.”

This time a year ago, schools opened for just one day before closing for the entirety of the winter lockdown. Here’s why this year looks to be different and what parents needs to know.

What are the new rules around face masks?

Pupils in secondary schools across England are being asked to wear a mask or face covering in classrooms and indoor communal areas as a temporary measure to stop the spread of Omicron cases, as per the updated government advice.

This brings England’s guidelines in line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where face masks are already recommended for pupils in classrooms. 

Secondary school teachers are not required to wear masks when teaching, but they are encouraged to wear them when moving around other parts of a school’s premises, such as in corridors and other indoor communal areas. 

While pupils do not have to wear masks outdoors at school, it is advised that students they masks while travelling to and from school on public transport.

Primary school children are not required to wear masks in class, but primary school teachers are asked to wear face coverings in communal areas and corridors.

What are the current rules around Covid tests?

Health secretary Sajid Javid has said that “regular testing is a key way to support schools and protect face-to-face teaching”.

All secondary school students and staff in England are encouraged to take two weekly lateral flow tests each week, three to four days apart.

Schools should will also have a capacity to test pupils on site for asymptomatic cases, especially those pupils who can’t test at home. 

Pupils in England must now take their Covid tests in school – and are not permitted to go into class unless they get a negative result after 15 minutes – although in other parts of the UK, pre-testing is encouraged at home.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, students are also being asked to test twice every week, too. Meanwhile in Wales, the government has urged staff and students to test three times per week before the start of the new term.

Primary school pupils in England do not have to test regullarly, unless they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 – in which case they are advised to take lateral flow tests every day for seven days.

When should you keep your child off school?

Children are mandated to attend school as usual unless they show symptoms of Covid-19 or have been in close contact with a confirmed Covid case, in which case they should do a PCR test and self-isolate until they get the results.

A “close contact” does not necessarily mean a whole year group. The government says close contacts are children/adults who’ve:

  • Had face-to-face contact with someone who has tested positive, including being coughed on or having a face-to-face conversation within one metre.

  • Been within one metre for one minute or longer without face-to-face contact.

  • Been within 2 metres of someone for more than 15 minutes (either as a one-off contact, or added up together over one day)

  • Traveled in the same vehicle.

If your child gets a positive PCR test, they should self-isolate for 10 days – but can return to school if they get two negative lateral flow tests on day six and seven.

Where are vaccines at for kids and teens?

While all teachers, staff and eligible pupils are urged to get vaccinated and boosted, at least half a million 16-17 year olds are still unvaccinated.

The original vaccination deadline for this age-group was August 2020, with the idea of young people being protected from Covid before the autumn term.

The backlog in the rollout to teenagers may be partially due to the lag time of when they can get a vaccine if they’ve had the virus. Anyone under the age of 18 has to wait at least 12 weeks before getting their jab after catching Covid.

Vulnerable children aged 5-11 are now being offered the vaccine – the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended 330,000 younger children at clinical risk, and also those living with someone who is immunosuppressed, will be recommended for jabs from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine in 10 microgram amounts will be offered – the equivalent of a third of the quantity used for adults – with a gap of eight weeks.

Some scientists believe the vaccination programme should be extended to the whole of this younger age group.

How might staff absences impact teaching?

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has insisted that face-to-face teaching in England will remain the norm, but education leaders and unions have warned of the impact of staff absences at the start of term as daily positive Omicron cases hit 200,000 for the first time in the pandemic.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the BBC: “While schools and colleges will do their very best to minimise the impact on pupils, as they always do, there is a possibility that this will mean that some classes and year groups have to be sent home for short periods of time to learn remotely.”

Schools are required by law to maintain their “capacity to deliver high-quality remote education” for this academic year to pupils whose attendance would be contrary to government guidance or legislation around Covid-19.

But six teacher unions have demanded action to limit the spread of the virus, including clearer guidance on ventilation and air-cleaning, funding for absence cover, help with on-site testing, and even a relaxation of Ofsted inspections.

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