#childsafety | Primary schools bring in tougher Covid rules as cases soar


Heads are “frustrated” over a lack of national Covid safety guidance for primary schools and are setting their own tougher restrictions, as new data reveals that primary children continue to have higher case rates.

Primary school-aged pupils had the second-highest rate of Covid cases in the week ending 31 December 2021, with 7.7 per cent testing positive, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics today.

Cases among younger pupils have been climbing since early December. Heads have told Tes of their anger at the lack of more stringent national guidance for primaries in the face of rising figures.

Schools implementing tougher Covid restrictions

Paul Urry, headteacher at St Stephen’s CE Primary School in Bradford, West Yorkshire, said: “We’ve got a frustration that there’s nothing specific to primary schools and yet the transmissibility seems to be high.”

Mr Urry said he has imposed working in “zonal areas” and is asking staff not to meet in person in an effort to prevent higher absence, explaining that he has six staff off with Covid already this week. 

“What we are trying to do is buy ourselves time. A lot of the systems we’re putting into place, with the testing and not full bubbles, but working in zonal areas and not meeting up as a staff in person just allows us to see where this variant is going to take us,” he added.

Other heads are putting in place their own risk assessments and taking extra measures where they are deemed necessary. 

Simon Smith, head of East Whitby Academy, in North Yorkshire, told Tes that not enough was yet known about the Omicron variant. 

I think we’ve just got to, as a school, make some mitigations that minimise the risk because, ultimately, I want to keep kids in school,” he said.

“If I don’t take any mitigations then I’m running the risk that that won’t happen and we’ll end up having to close schools, whereas hopefully the actions that we’re taking will mean that, if we do have an outbreak, it’ll be minimised and we can maintain the provision and keep schools open for the children.”

 

Mr Urry urged the Department for Education to acknowledge that its guidance to schools has focused on circumstances that suit Year 7-11 students this term, and that primary schools, therefore, need to implement their own Covid mitigations based on local case rates and the impact on individual schools.

“When they talk about classrooms doubling up, that’s only relevant to older pupils in secondary schools [as it is against the law to merge key stage 1 classes]. I need an acknowledgement from the government that they are prepared for schools to do what is necessary in the individual circumstance,” he said.

“If the government wants us to do what they need us to do (and that’s primarily to stay open and educate) then they’ll have to give us some resources. Headteachers know what they need but every situation is different.”

“If the government wants us to do what they need us to do (and that’s primarily to stay open and educate) then they’ll have to give us some resources. Headteachers know what they need but every situation is different.”

In his letter to schools at the start of term, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told staff that schools may have to combine classes to ensure they stay open.

However, under current legislation, any school combining Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 classes to make more than 30 pupils with only one teacher would be breaking the law. 

Legislation governing primary schools admissions states that infant classes must not contain more than 30 pupils with a single school teacher. Additional children may be admitted under limited exceptional circumstances, but Covid is not listed as an exception. 

The DfE confirmed to Tes that the KS1 legal limit should “not be breached.”

James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union the NAHT, said: “On the subject of merging classes, in reality this is not going to be a realistic option for many where large numbers of children are involved, and school leaders will always put the welfare and safety of pupils first when making any such arrangements.

“The existing legislation on infant class sizes does state that no infant class can contain more than 30 pupils. This limit is there to ensure that these younger children are safely looked after and the Department for Education has confirmed that this remains the case. This means that merging classes for this younger group will be very difficult, if not impossible, given the legal limits in place.”

Covid staff absence

While schools may normally be able to provide those extra members of staff, concerns over teacher absence may make this impossible. 

Today, the NAHT revealed that more than a third of heads had over 10 per cent of staff off work this week. Of the 2,000 teachers who responded to its survey, 76 per cent were primary school teachers and leaders. 

Almost one in 10 said they had more than 20 per cent of their teaching staff absent.

At the end of last term, the DfE called for ex-teachers to return to the classroom to help minimise Covid disruption as the Omicron variant spreads.

However, there were concerns that schools would not be able to afford the supply agency costs of these staff. 

Stuart Guest, a primary headteacher in the West Midlands, told Tes that the reports of the increased transmissability of Omicron had led to him going against government guidelines in his school.

Last month, the DfE confirmed that the government’s new seven-day Covid isolation rule applied to pupils, meaning school students who catch Covid can end their isolation after seven days following two negative tests taken 24 hours apart.

However, Mr Guest has decided to stick to the previous guidance that pupils will only be able to return to the school after a period of 10-day isolation.

Mr Guest also said that a pupil who has been contacted by NHS Test and Trace or lives in a household with a positive case should wear a face covering in school up to at least the end of day 10 since the last contact with the person who tested positive.

Another headteacher said on Twitter that efforts to implement similar guidelines in her school were blocked by the local authority. 

Several other heads told Tes they were introducing “zonal areas” and “bubbles” to help reduce transmission.

Peter Cansell, of the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE), said children’s education had been “touted as important” throughout the pandemic “but largely abandoned in favour of childcare”.

Paul Gosling, headteacher of Exeter Road Community Primary School, in Devon, echoed Mr Cansell’s comments, adding: “We’re under no illusions that we’re likely to be mostly a childcare provider rather than educational establishment in this next few weeks while Covid goes through.”

Mr Gosling’s school is avoiding mixing children unnecessarily this term and reportedly has “a whole toolbox” of mitigations available. 

“I’ve got no hesitation in going above and beyond what the government says. I will do what I need to do to keep the establishment open but people safe and safety comes first,” he said.

Councils taking extra steps

Somerset County Council told Tes that it has now introduced an “amber/ enhanced measures contingency framework” for schools as it has high Covid case numbers, with Omicron now the dominant variant. This includes increased frequency of LFD testing, recommending a one-off PCR test for school contacts, and using methods to reduce mixing between groups such as staggered drop-off and pick-up times and lunch and break times confined to class bubbles. 

Wigan Council also told Tes that where schools are advised by the DfE to consider merging classes to support with staffing sustainability issues, it has “provided additional local advice as to circumstances where this would not be the safest option from a health protection perspective”.

Michael Tidd, headteacher at East Preston Junior School, in West Sussex, said the lack of DfE primary school mitigation recommendations has hit confidence among school leaders.

 “They may have very good reasons why there are virtually no mitigations for primary schools compared to our secondary colleagues,” he said.

“Without knowing what the rationale is, it’s very hard to feel confident that the right decisions are being made, and very hard for heads to feel confident about appropriate steps to take.”

Mr Bowen added: “School leaders have repeatedly found themselves in an invidious position when it comes to implementing ever-changing Covid guidelines.

“It’s important to remember that school leaders are doing the very best they can to keep pupils, staff and families safe, and at the same time trying to ensure that education is disrupted as little as possible.

“While there will be a range of views on the rights and wrongs of government policy when it comes to schools, we would urge parents and pupils to follow the measures schools are implementing so that schools can continue to focus on providing the best education possible during these challenging weeks.”

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the workforce fund needed to be “simpler and more supportive” in order to provide more support to primary schools.

“It needs to be extended for as long as the disruption continues. This is essential for the many primary schools which run on extremely tight budgets and simply cannot afford the extra costs caused by the pandemic,” she added.

Regulators have approved the coronavirus vaccine for children aged 5-11, but the government has only so far recommended the jab be given to vulnerable pupils in this age group.





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