#childsafety | “A s*** show of a year for kids”: Why school bubbles were destined to fail


When schools opened in September most parents were hopeful of a year without disruption.

After the chaos of the full national lockdown, when school closures left many parents home schooling their kids – often while trying to do their own jobs – most were just grateful to get youngsters back in class and getting a full education.

We accepted bubbles, we adapted to staggered start and finish times, and despite some initial hesitancy, most secondary and college kids cracked on with their weekly tests and mask wearing.

READ MORE: Bubbles won’t be scrapped in Greater Manchester schools because Covid rates too high

When closures first began most families willingly adapted to their circumstances – rearranging work commitments, cancelling events and days out because their child needed to isolate.

That was when the ‘it is what it is’ attitude prevailed, with mums and dads resigned to the fact their time would inevitably come.

But it wasn’t long before the cracks started to appear in the ‘guidance’ we hear so much about and parents were soon questioning the reasoning behind some of the rules.

Like keeping your child off because they’re a close contact, yet the siblings they live with – sharing cups and who knows what else with – can still attend.

And the fact you can’t take an isolating child out of the house to take your other children to school.

Parents have questioned the guidance on siblings

What about single parents? What about couples who both work? I heard of one mum recently who had to keep all of her children off school because one had been asked to isolate and she couldn’t leave the others home alone to take the bus ride she needed to get there.

In a year where kids have already lost so much of their education, how can that be right.

Then you’ve got the people who don’t stick to the rules anyway. The ones taking their children shopping or letting them have sleepovers when they should be isolating.

With some youngsters facing numerous periods of isolation though, and genuine concerns around mental health, you have to ask yourself what risk there is of taking a child out for some exercise if you’re keeping a distance from everyone else.

The crowds allowed at Wembley Stadium understandably sparked anger

It’s understandable why the crowds allowed at Wembley and Wimbledon stirred up so much anger when our young people have had to sacrifice so much.

In many ways it’s those who have followed the guidance to a T who are paying the biggest price – the close contact pupils who are missing out on school trips because they tested positive with a PCR when others in their class didn’t even bother getting tested (because it’s recommended rather than mandatory).

Some would argue parents have brought some of the disruption on themselves – using lateral flow tests on primary aged children when neither the Department for Education or Public Health England have ever recommended them for use with that age group.

Without that though, youngsters would be free to keep spreading the virus undetected and it’s that – along with the number of children being affected by Long Covid – which is concerning health experts the most.

Lateral flow tests were never recommended for primary aged children

They have already shared their fears that a ‘do nothing’ approach to build herd immunity will put too many youngsters at risk – and increase the chance of the virus mutating into a variant that will eventually evade the vaccine.

Unhappy with the decision to lift controls at a time when infection rates are still rising, they say mitigation measures need putting in place to prevent classroom transmission.

They want to improve ventilation in schools by providing CO2 monitors and air filters – something that’s already been done in other countries.

And many want young people to be given the vaccine, again something that’s already happening elsewhere.

Dr Nisreen Alwan, an associate professor in public health at the University of Southampton, was shocked when the government announced it was scrapping safety measures in schools here.

Infographic published by clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani and colleagues in The Lancet, shows the mitigations other countries are successfully using in schools to control transmission

She said that ‘what’s happening in England now will not end well’, adding: “Let’s look outside our “bubble”. Children living in so many other countries are not subjected to this ‘natural immunity’ experiment. There is another way. The way of protecting the young who sacrificed so much to protect the old.”

Only time will tell how things pan out from September. We’re already being told that secondary school children will be tested upon their return and education leaders have told us that plans are very much ‘under constant review’.

One thing we know for sure is that any patience parents and schools had with bubbles floated off a long time ago. And for the sake of our children’s education, to protect their future, we simply cannot have a repeat of this s**t show of a year.

Pandemic in schools timeline

27 Feb, 2020

Public Health England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty first warned that schools could be forced to close for two months if the coronavirus outbreak worsened.

March 6, 2020

Garrett Hall Primary in Tyldesley, Wigan, was the first school to close because of coronavirus when two parents tested positive. It closed for two days for a deep clean.

March 11, 2020

A petition urging schools and colleges to close was backed by more than a quarter of a million people – more than double the number needed to trigger a debate in Parliament.

March 18, 2020

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed nurseries, schools and colleges would close from Friday, March 20 – only staying open for vulnerable youngsters and children of key workers including NHS staff, police officers, care workers and delivery drivers.

It was also announced that GCSE and A-Level exams would be cancelled.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

May 10, 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans for schools to reopen in stages – beginning with nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from June 1 – which were prioritised because ‘they are key transition years’.

If successful, the plan was to get all children back in primary school ‘for a month if feasible’ before the summer holidays.

May 19, 2020

Most councils in Greater Manchester raised concerns over the June 1 date and said it would be ‘highly unlikely’ with rates so high in their areas.

June 2020

Pupils from the priority year groups made a gradual return, but not all schools reopened for those pupils and it was looking increasingly likely they, along with other classes, would not return before the academic year was out.

Unions were unhappy with the reopening, with the National Education Union saying the government was failing ‘to protect all of us during this frightening and difficult time’.

It was at this time when the union wrote to the Prime Minister with a 10-point plan for children and young people, which included options for how to continue with education in a safer way – including using public buildings like libraries and sports halls to expand the spaces available to schools and to have ‘blended learning’ with pupils attending school on a rota system to reduce class sizes.

June 9, 2020

The government dropped its plan to have all children back in before summer, saying it was no longer considered feasible.

June 23, 2020

The Prime Minister confirmed that schools would reopen to all pupils from September.

June/July 2020

As the summer term continued at home, with parents struggling to work, concern was rising over lost classroom time, with some parents complaining their children were offered little support or didn’t have the necessary technology and wifi needed to work from home.

July 2, 2020

Government announced measures to allow all children to return in September.

These included staggered start and finish times, staggered breaks and pupils put into bubbles.

Small groups were recommended – to limit the number of people needing to isolate from a positive case – but ultimately it was left to individual schools to decide how they could make it work, with the size and layout of their buildings, along with staff numbers, obvious factors in this.

August 2, 2020

There were growing concerns from unions over the reopening of schools with NASUWT calling for clarity for parents, teachers and leaders amid rising cases.

August, 2020

Ministers launched a back to school campaign to assure parents’ it is safe.

They issued extensive guidelines to schools explaining how they should ensure that children are kept safe, with everything from class ‘bubbles’, to wearing face coverings and testing suspected cases.

September 2020

Pupils started the new school year with restrictions in place.

Staff in all schools were asked to wear masks, with secondary school pupils asked to wear them when moving around the school.

September 2, 2020

Just days into the new school year and bubble closures began, with full year groups being sent home from some high schools following the advice of public health.

By September 7 we reported how more than a thousand youngsters were already isolating following positive cases at 15 Greater Manchester schools.

Parents shared their frustration over the bubble closures and questioned the sibling rule – with brothers and sisters of isolating children still allowed in school.

Many families were confused as to who had to isolate when a child was sent home so we published a guide for parents.

September 15, 2020

By this time more than 200 schools had been forced to send children home to isolate and concerns were growing over how much classroom time youngsters were going to miss once again.

Headteachers shared their frustrations over bubble closures and the lack of tests available.

September 16, 2020

Horton Mill Primary School, in Glodwick, Oldham, became the first school in Greater Manchester to close to all pupils after positive cases involving pupils and staff in several year groups.

This was followed two days later by St Luke’s Primary in Heywood.

Horton Mill Community School in Oldham was the first to close in September

September 17, 2020

The government set up a new helpline for schools to report Covid cases.

Amid reports that some headteachers had been waiting days for advice from overwhelmed public health teams, the helpline aimed to speed up the process and prevent schools being left in limbo.

The government said it would free up the health protection teams to deal with more complex cases, such as special schools and boarding schools, or outbreaks where there was more than one confirmed case.

October 2020

The Manchester Evening News kept an up-to-date list of all the schools with Covid cases – and from September to October half term it reached a staggering 581.

But with schools not releasing the information and only Wigan Council issuing a regular list of closures as part of its weekly Covid surveillance tracker, union bosses said the public was being ‘kept in the dark’ over the true extent of cases in the region.

November 2020

The disruption continued across the region. Mayor Andy Burnham called for a two-week closure to help bring Covid numbers down. But the Greater Manchester Covid committee disagreed, saying closures would have ‘a detrimental impact on children’.

Headteachers warned of ‘significant disruption’ ahead as Covid cases continued to hit schools.

Mayor Andy Burnham

November 12, 2020

It was becoming apparent that Greater Manchester was being impacted far more than other areas of the country, sparking concern of the north-south divide deepening in schools.

Leaders described it as ‘the forgotten north’ – with parents and heads accusing the government of turning a blind eye to school closure chaos here.

This was made worse when mass testing was rolled out to schools in London as soon as cases began spiralling there.

December 2020

With cases still rising, one education trust – Focus Trust – planned to close its schools early for Christmas, seven of which are in Greater Manchester.

But the government stepped in urging trust bosses to ‘review’ their decision saying it wanted to ‘avoid further disruption to education’.

Thousands of people also signed a petition calling for schools to shut early so that pupils and staff would have the chance to isolate for two weeks before meeting up with family or friends over the festive period.

The government later agreed that schools could have an inset day on December 18 to avoid staff having to deal with contact tracing over the festive break.

Mid December 2020

By the time children did break up for Christmas, we’d reported cases at more than 220 Greater Manchester schools since the beginning of the October break.

There were now plans being made to test secondary school and college staff with rapid weekly tests after the festive break and for all close contacts of any positive cases to be tested daily as an alternative to isolation.

Late December 2020

With fears growing over the new variant infecting children more easily, reports emerged of ministers considering plans to keep schools closed in January.

Greater Manchester’s public health leaders said they were keeping an open mind about school return date as they sought to learn more about the new strain.

Meanwhile the NEU was calling for schools to remain closed for two weeks after the break, during which time mass testing could take place along with the vaccination of all education staff.

January 2021

Despite pressure for a national lockdown, the government announced that schools in Greater Manchester would reopen as planned from January 4.

Only primaries in London, where the new fast spreading variant was concentrated, would remain closed.

On January 3, the Prime Minister urged parents to send their children in, declaring ‘there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe’.

January 4, 2021

Following an emergency meeting of unions, teachers were urged to stay away from schools – with members told they had the ‘legal right’ not to turn up for work due to health and safety concerns.

This meant that some schools couldn’t open anyway as they didn’t have the staff.

By the evening it didn’t matter anyway as the PM once again announced that schools would close immediately as England entered another lockdown.

Once again it meant that all-but the children of key workers and vulnerable children would have to stay at home.

January 20, 2021

With pupils now learning remotely it was reported that plans for daily Covid tests on their return were being shelved.

The proposal to have daily tests as an alternative to isolation had been based on fighting the virus prior to the new variant emerging. And with that having higher transmissibility, it’s felt the seven-day test plan will not be effective enough.

Instead we were told that pupils and staff would be tested on site in the first two weeks back at school, and then carry on testing twice a week from home.

February 2021

Teachers continued to prepare work for pupils – with some delivering packs to children’s homes – and many delivering online lessons at the same time as teaching key worker children in class.

Despite many more schools now being fully on board with live lessons, there were still a large number of kids without the necessary resources for remote learning.

It was at this time when the then Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield supported calls for longer school days and shorter holidays, warning that one in six children may never be able to catch up without the right support.

Anne Longfield, who was then the Children’s Commissioner, warned that youngsters would struggle to catch up

March 2021

It was March 8 when most children finally returned to schools in what some called a ‘big bang’ approach.

From now secondary school pupils were asked to wear mask in class as well as when walking around – but it was a request rather than a requirement and therefore not something teachers could enforce.

Once schools finished testing pupils on site they began handing out packs of lateral flow tests for students to do from home.

As well as older children, every adult in a household with kids in education, no matter what their age – and the support bubbles of those kids – were encouraged to test regularly at home. The same applied to any household with primary or secondary school staff.

March 9, 2021

Just a day after school returned and we reported the first bubble closure – in the Reception class at Westfield Community School in Wigan.

Once again positive cases were causing disruption to classes across the region.

By the Easter break, 125 schools had been affected by cases.

March 24, 2021

We reported how Westhoughton High was one of 200 schools across the country taking part in a clinical trial to test pupils daily instead of them having to isolate.

The results of the trial, which ended last month, are still being analysed and – despite unions and headteachers expecting it to be rolled out to all areas from September – it’s not yet known whether that will happen.

Westhoughton High took part in a trial to keep close contact pupils in school

April 2021

Schools in Bolton were the worst hit after the Easter holidays with the spread of the Delta variant in the town.

Surge testing picked up on many of the cases, forcing bubbles to collapse and some high schools switch to remote learning for entire year groups.

May 2021

In the run up to May half term, schools in neighbouring Bury and Wigan were seeing case numbers rising.

Despite masks being scrapped in schools elsewhere, pupils across Greater Manchester were told they’d have to keep wearing them in class after the break.

June/July 2021

Since May half term – with infection rates rising across the region – many schools have seen case rates similar to the autumn peak and thousands of pupils have once again been sent home to learn remotely.

For some children it’s their seventh or eighth period of isolation this school year.

Despite the government saying bubbles will be scrapped from next week, it’s not happening in schools here as rates are too high.

While nationally positive cases will now be dealt with by NHS Test and Trace, for now, schools here will maintain a role in this and will work with local public health officials to work out who needs to isolate.

September plan

At the moment the plan is for bubbles to be scrapped in all areas from September.

And with isolation rules changing from August 16, it should bring an end to large scale closures.

Close contacts of anyone testing positive for Covid will no longer need to isolate, but will instead be advised to take a PCR test. Only those testing positive will need to stay at home.

While parents are understandably relieved with the prospect of less disruption, union leaders and some scientists fear the worst if mitigation measures aren’t put in place to prevent classroom transmission.

Has your school had a positive Covid test this half term? How many times has your child had to isolate this academic year?

Let us know in the comments here or email emma.gill@reachplc.com.





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