Covid: School isolation rules could end in autumn
School isolation rules in England could be brought to an end in autumn, amid concerns about the rising number of children who have to quarantine because they are contacts of confirmed cases.
Frustration among parents is building over the disruption to children’s education and their working lives.
Child health experts say it is time to rethink the rules around bubbles and testing in schools.
The new health secretary, Sajid Javid, said he would address the issue.
The Department for Education said that in order to keep as many children in face-to-face education as possible, ministers have written to secondary schools asking them provisionally to prepare to offer on-site testing after the summer break.
- Should schoolchildren still have to self-isolate?
- Should all children get a Covid vaccine?
- Face masks no longer required in classrooms
Asked about the self isolation policy in the Commons on Monday, Mr Javid said it was “having a huge knock-on impact” on children’s education.
He said he had asked the Department for Health and Social Care for “fresh advice” and that he would discuss it with the education secretary “to see what more we can do”.
“We remain committed to prioritising education as we have done throughout the pandemic, and will share details on the approach to protective measures and test and
trace in schools for the autumn term in due course.”
It comes as official figures being released later are expected to show a further rise in the number of pupils at home.
Last week, official figures showed that more than 250,000 children in the UK were absent from school because of Covid.
Figures for 17 June showed that in England alone, 172,000 were self-isolating because of potential contact with a positive pupil in school.
Daily testing as a replacement for self-isolation is being trialled in a small number of secondary schools and colleges.
That pilot scheme will end this week, and ministers are not expected to make a final decision on self isolation until the results have been examined.
But there is a recognition that any change must be announced before the end of term, so it can be implemented after the summer break.
Time for policy change?
The policy, which sees children sent home if they are classed as a close contact of a confirmed case, was established last September – well before the vaccines were rolled out.
Currently, for every one confirmed case there are more than 20 pupils isolating at home as a precaution.
The government is looking at alternatives to the policy, but has ruled out changing approach until the start of the new school year after the summer.
But Dr Sunil Bhopal, an expert in child health at Newcastle University, said this was not good enough.
“It is a policy that has had its time. We have to ask ourselves what is proportionate given the protection offered by vaccines.
“Education is being disrupted on a huge scale. It is not fair on children who have already sacrificed so much.
“As we have loosened restrictions across society, we seem to have forgotten about children. I can’t understand why this has been allowed to happen.
“There are no easy solutions, but I think one thing that could be done straight away is tighten the guidance about what constitutes close contacts, so fewer children are asked to isolate.”
Prof Russell Viner, from the Institute of Child Health at University College London, said Covid rules in schools needed to be looked at again.
“We need to rethink all of our rules about schools as we move through into the new school year,” he said.
“There needs to be a balance between how much they protect and how much they harm children.
“If all adults are vaccinated, or we get close to it, we need to think carefully before we put restrictions on the one part of society – our children – that is not vaccinated.”
‘Feels like the summer term has been written off’
Nina Yates, a parent of two boys at primary school in Essex, is frustrated by the current rules on isolation which she says “make no sense”.
After an email on Sunday evening telling her older son, in Year 6, to stay at home until next Tuesday because of a positive rapid test result in his class, she is angry.
As a single mother it’s been a “logistical nightmare”, she says, arranging for her sons to be looked after while she works.
Both boys share a bedroom – but that’s also not supposed to happen if one is isolating.
“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she says.
Nina says her son, who is in his last year at primary school, has “really missed out, particularly on all the inductions for secondary school”.
“I feel like this summer term has just been written off.”
Describing the tears and stress of home learning earlier this year, she adds: “He is so done with Zoom lessons.”
Teachers are also questioning the policy.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was vital the disruption of the past year was brought to an end.
“We are pressing the government to rethink these rules and to set out its plans as a matter of urgency.”
‘Devastated to be at home’
Chris Dyson, head teacher at Parklands Primary school in Leeds, agreed, saying it was having a damaging effect on the children at his school.
He has recently had to shut one Year 5 class bubble of nine to 10-year-olds because of a positive case.
The children, who will miss extra summer activities like swimming and archery, are “devastated to be at home”, he said.
“We know we’ve got to follow the rules but they need tweaking now.
“We can’t start September with so much disruption.”
Mr Dyson said it was the “stop-start” nature of schooling that’s most damaging for kids.
And he also knows the impact on working parents after his own four-year-old daughter was also sent home from school to isolate.
“My wife who’s also a teacher had to stay at home with her and couldn’t work for three days,” he says.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We remain committed to prioritising education as we have done throughout the pandemic, and will share details on the approach to protective measures and test and trace in schools for the autumn term in due course.”