There are growing calls for changes to schools’ COVID guidance to prevent large groups of children having to be sent home every time just one or two pupils test positive.
At present, pupils in England must not come to school if they have been in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
But while in secondary schools the numbers quarantining is relatively small each time, for primary schools entire “bubbles” containing scores of children are often sent home because youngsters are not able to socially distance – frustrating parents who have to home school, taking time off to do so, or overseeing their children’s education while working from home.
With schools currently said to be a major source of infection as vaccination levels rise in the rest of the population, there are worries that increasing numbers of children are continuing to go without the education they would normally have.
The latest Department for Education figures show that, as of 17 June, 2.3% of all youngsters at state school were self-isolating due to possible contact with a COVID-19 case in school.
This is despite only around 0.1% of pupils being a confirmed case – a ratio of nearly 23:1, when England’s average class size is 26.
The proportion of pupils having to self-isolate as a result of a COVID case in school was up from 0.5% on 10 June.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) is among those calling for a different approach.
Its general secretary, Geoff Barton, told Sky News: “We entirely understand the frustration of parents about children being sent home to self-isolate after so much disruption during the past year, and that frustration is shared by schools and colleges.
“Government rules require schools and colleges to trace the close contacts of anyone with coronavirus and ask them to self-isolate, and this can quickly escalate to a significant number of pupils.
“It seems unlikely that these rules will change ahead of the anticipated end of wider lockdown restrictions on 19 July and the school summer holidays. However, we are pressing the government to rethink these rules for the beginning of the new academic year in September and to set out its plans as a matter of urgency.
“It is essential that the educational disruption we have seen over the past 15 months is brought to an end.”
Another figure calling for change, and one with a deep understanding of the spread and risk from COVID, is King’s College London epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector, who runs the ZOE Symptom Study app.
He tweeted on Saturday, in response to media coverage of the latest figures: “Now that COVID is endemic and most susceptible people are protected – it makes no sense to keep sending masses of kids home and mess up their education when one case occurs and their risk is tiny.”
He believes testing close contacts of confirmed cases to narrow the circle of those being sent home would be a better system, the Financial Times reported.
He told the paper: “The vast majority of current cases are in younger people, often with no symptoms. The solution could be daily testing of the contacts of people who have tested positive, enabling pupils to stay in school.”
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow education secretary, told Sky News: “The Conservatives’ negligence in letting the Delta variant take hold in the UK and failing to make schools COVID-secure, has led to almost a quarter of a million pupils missing out on school last week.
“Urgent action is needed to keep children learning safely in school now and come the autumn.”
But not everyone is in favour of change.
The trade union NAHT, which says it represents head teachers at the majority of English schools, told Sky News it would be reluctant to call for changes to the guidance at present.
A spokesperson said: “It would be very difficult for us as educators to argue for different systems of control because those are set up by government based on expert scientific guidance.
“Our members are educators; they’ll follow the guidance that’s given because it’s given for good reason. Whilst it might be tempting to say something like that (calling for a different approach), actually we’re very careful not to because we could quite easily be wrong. And we’re sticking to where our expertise lies, which is educating pupils.“
When the concerns were put to the government, a spokesperson pointed to the fact that areas given enhanced response packages have discretion to re-implement added restrictions such as on-site testing if they wish – and the areas are regularly reviewed.
They reiterated that the health secretary had asked the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) to provide clinical advice on vaccinating 12 to 17-year-olds and added that the government would be setting out arrangements for protective measures, testing and isolation for the next academic year in due course.
The spokesperson added: “Schools across the country continue to have robust protective measures in place, including regular weekly testing to break chains of transmission and keeping pupils in smaller group bubbles.
“We are also taking additional measures in areas where there is a high prevalence of the virus, including increasing the availability of testing for staff, pupils and families and working with Directors of Public Health to reduce local transmission.”