As schools return for the new academic year, after what has been recognised to be one of the most challenging and demanding years known to education institutions, we turn our attention to the ongoing implications of Covid-19 for schools on a day to day basis.
As Covid-19 becomes a virus that we are learning to live with, there is a desire to reduce the disruption to children and young people’s education; with this in mind the Government through the DfE has worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE) to revise and update the operational guidance for schools with effect from 17 August 2021, found here.
The headlines for schools are that face coverings are (at the time of writing) no longer advised for anyone in school, i.e. pupils, staff or visitors in either classrooms or communal areas; however, it is still recommended that they are used on all forms of school transport, both public and dedicated.
For secondary schools all pupils should receive 2 on site lateral flow tests 3-5 days apart on their return in the autumn term. Schools were encouraged to commence testing from 3 working days before the start of term and can stagger the return of pupils across the first week in order to manage this. Thereafter, pupils should test twice weekly at home until the end of September, when we are told the guidance will once again be reviewed.
Secondary schools are mandated to retain a small asymptomatic testing site (ATS) on-site until further notice in order to be able to offer testing to pupils who are unable to test themselves at home.
In addition, schools should have already re-visited and updated their “Outbreak Management” plans – how they would operate if there was an outbreak of Covid-19 in school, or the local area, and were advised to take extra measures to help break chains of transmission. However, given the recognised detrimental impact that restrictions on education can have on pupils, it is recommended that, subject to public health and Government advice, any measures in schools should only ever be considered as a last resort, kept to the minimum number of schools or groups and for the shortest time possible. We strongly recommend that all schools read the updated contingency framework for education and childcare settings which is available here to ensure that their outbreak management plans reflect the latest guidance.
Schools are reminded of the continuing, and now normalised, control measures that should be in place: –
- Good hygiene – the need to continue with regular hand cleaning either by the use of soap and water, or hand sanitiser.
- Maintenance of appropriate cleaning regimes – there should be regular cleaning of all areas and equipment twice a day, with a focus on frequently touched surfaces.
- Occupied spaces to be kept well-ventilated – schools are required to identify any poorly ventilated spaces as part of their ongoing risk assessments and take steps to improve the airflow; particular consideration should be given to this for events when visitors are on-site such as school plays, and other populated events. To this end it was announced on 21 August 2021 that all state funded schools are to be provided with CO2 monitors so that staff can quickly identify where ventilation needs to be improved.
- The need to follow public health advice – highlighted are the requirements about testing, self-isolation and managing confirmed cases of Covid-19. This includes the requirement that those who test positive or have symptoms should isolate and all settings should seek public health advice if a pupil or staff member is admitted to hospital with COVID-19. If anyone in school develops Covid-19 symptoms, they should be sent home (avoiding public transport wherever possible)and told to follow public health advice.
From a staffing point of view, the following points are worth noting:
- Social distancing measures have now ended in the workplace and it is no longer necessary for the government to instruct people to work from home.
- Clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people are advised, as a minimum, to follow the same guidance as everyone else.
- Employers should be able to explain the measures they have in place to keep CEV staff safe at work.
- Separate rules apply for pregnant employees which are available here.
- Staff should undertake twice weekly home tests whenever they are on site until the end of September, when this will also be reviewed.
Individuals who have been fully vaccinated, those who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons and children under the age of 18 are no longer required to self-isolate if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive case. 18 year olds, i.e. Year 13 students, will be treated in the same way as children until 6 months after their 18th birthday to allow them to become fully vaccinated. You should note that this has increased from the former 4 months contained in the guidance issued on 2 July 2021. If they or members of staff, however, choose not to become vaccinated they will be subject to the same self-isolation rules as non-double vaccinated adults which means that they will have to self-isolate if they are in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Those who have been in close contact but are not required to self-isolate (as summarised above) will be “advised” to take a PCR test. Our interpretation of the current guidance is that schools cannot insist that individuals take a PCR test or send pupils (or staff) home for refusing to take a PCR test in such circumstances.
It is to be noted that schools will continue to have a role in working with the local health protection teams in cases of a local outbreak, and if there is a local outbreak it is anticipated that the Director of Public Health might advise a setting to temporarily re-introduce some control measures.
It is mandatory for all pupils of compulsory school age to be in school from the commencement of the autumn term 2021, but where there are cases of self-isolation or local or national restrictions are imposed remote education is required to be provided in accordance with the “Remote Education Temporary Continuity (No 2) Direction” issued on 18 August 2021, such that schools are required to maintain their capacity to deliver high-quality remote education for the academic year 2021/2022. A copy of the DfE issued explanatory note can be found here.
In addition, Ofsted has confirmed that inspections will resume in September 2021, and that they aim to inspect every state funded school within the next 5 academic years. This will mean an extension of up to 6 terms in the inspection interval for those not inspected since the start of the pandemic. Ofsted has also stated that in addition to those schools most in need of inspection, they will prioritise outstanding schools that were previously exempt from routine inspection.
Many of our clients have received correspondence during the pandemic from parents raising concerns about a range of issues connected with Covid-19, for example, the use of face masks and hand sanitiser as well as questions about whether schools are safe environments if a member of the pupil’s family is vulnerable (with some pupils being kept at home as a result). We have also seen correspondence from parents and other groups more recently which raises concerns about vaccines. The situation is an evolving one and at the time of writing, there are reports that the Government is yet to make a decision about whether to vaccinate healthy 12-15 year olds. The debate about vaccinating school pupils is a contentious one but ultimately the decision about whether to vaccinate school children is down to the Government. If you receive any correspondence from stakeholders relating to Covid-19 which you would like advice on before you respond, please contact our School Support team.
It is important that schools continue to maintain and review risk assessments in order to help to keep the school community safe and to manage risks. Although many of the rules and measures have been relaxed, it is important that trustees, governors and school leaders ensure that complacency does not set in. Communication with stakeholders is still vital: although schools will not generally have responsibility for track and trace (unless informed otherwise), they will still be relying on staff and parents to inform them if they test positive so that the school can assess whether any additional actions in the outbreak management plan are triggered. The Government guidance states that settings should continue with strong messaging about signs and symptoms, isolation advice and testing, to support prompt isolation of suspected cases.
In addition, despite the easing of the Covid rules, to comply with the general duty of care owed to staff it is important that all employers regularly review risk assessments, particularly in relation to vulnerable staff. Further, although home working is no longer mandated, staff can still make flexible working requests including to work from home. It is therefore important to deal with these consistently, and in accordance with your policies and procedures and the statutory framework.
Winckworth Sherwood School Support Service
Our Education Team offers a School Support Service and Schools HR retainer with a choice between a Gold and Silver Service depending on your level of need. Our team currently support hundreds of schools who have the reassurance that they can contact a legal specialist when the need arises, whilst also being able to budget for the cost of doing so. For further information about how we can provide ongoing support for your School or MAT or to make an enquiry about how we can support you with a one-off project, please contact email@example.com or 0345 070 7437.