Pupils wearing masks in Llanishen High School, Cardiff
A former Government scientific adviser says a nationwide schools Covid policy is now needed to ensure no child misses out because regional authorities adopt different measures.
Professor Robert Dingwall, who sat on two Covid advisory groups, spoke out as it emerged that more than 100,000 children were off school last week with suspected or confirmed coronavirus – the highest number during the pandemic.
This is in spite of new Department for Education (DfE) guidance that schools should aim to go back to normal with “an imperative to reduce the disruption to children and young people’s education”.
Schools are apparently ignoring the guidance and taking their own measures, sometimes in conjunction with health authorities and in other cases just at the behest of headteachers, to stop the virus spreading.
Their actions include closing entire schools, precautionary quarantining of healthy pupils and a default to remote learning. One school set up an on-site PCR testing hub.
Prof Dingwall, an expert in sociology at Nottingham Trent University, says it is time for a consistent policy to help restore children’s education and schooling.
He said: “We now have a situation where all teachers will have been given the opportunity to have had a Covid vaccine. Schools should not be closing and healthy children should not be working remotely.
“NHS England, Public Health England and the DfE are playing pass the parcel over who needs to take responsibility for getting children back to proper schooling.
“It appears that directors of public health and headteachers are imposing their own rules, despite this Department of Education guidance.
“The chief medical officer [Prof Chris Whitty] should put a stop to this and ensure that the directors of public health are accountable for making sure all children are in school unless they are unwell.”
The former adviser cited the admission to MPs by Prof Whitty last week that the Government could do little to ensure schools complied with DfE guidance.
Prof Dingwall said: “It seems that the same is true of directors of public health, who are supposed to advise schools.
“While local flexibility is always desirable, it cannot be allowed to undermine central Government’s obvious desire to de-escalate the war on Covid in English classrooms.” Meanwhile, former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said: “In this new term, it is vital school becomes as normal as possible and children are able to relax back to a normal experience following the very destabilising disruptions and constant changes over the past two years.
“The threat of bubbles and isolation at home should not be hanging over them and this should only happen as a very last resort.
“Following the vaccine rollout parents need to be reassured children can plan again and life can be as normal as possible.”
Meanwhile, current children’s commissioner Dame Rachel De Souza has warned Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi never to close schools again in future lockdowns because of the severe effect on children’s welfare and education. She said: “The harms done by losing education are immense… sitting in front of a computer is no proxy for being with a teacher.”
In the first two weeks of this term, one Manchester school opted to surge test all 11 and 12-year-old pupils. Those who declined were not allowed in and children with a negative result were still required to test daily.
Another school in East Riding, Yorks, worked with local public health chiefs to set up a mobile PCR testing unit to find cases at the start of the term.
And heads at a secondary school in Surrey reintroduced mandatory mask wearing, which DfE guidance says is “no longer advised for pupils, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas”.
The school also banned group gatherings, after six PCR positive results.
Professor Chris Whitty
A primary school in Cornwall announced it would shut down last week following confirmed Covid cases “and in collaboration with Public Health England and Cornwall Council”.
A letter to parents stated: “We have taken the decision to close the school for 10 days and move to online learning.”
Schools across Cumbria were given advice from the county council’s director of public health that all siblings of those who test positive should also self-isolate and take a PCR.
This is contrary to DfE guidance for this term, which states children under 18 are not required to self-isolate if in close contact with a positive case.
DfE guidance for the autumn term states: “As Covid-19 becomes a virus that we learn to live with, there is now an imperative to reduce the disruption to children and young people’s education – particularly given that the direct clinical risks to children are extremely low, and every adult has been offered a first vaccine and the opportunity for two doses by mid-September.
“Our priority is for you to deliver face-to-face, high-quality education to all pupils.
“The evidence is clear that being out of education causes significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, mental and physical health.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “The best place for children and young people to be is in school with their teachers and friends.
“Last week more than 91 percent were back in the classroom.
“The measures in place strike a balance between managing transmission risk with enhanced ventilation, regular Covid testing, vaccinations of older students and staff, and reducing disruption to education by removing bubbles and face coverings.
“If there are particularly high Covid case rates in a school or college, local directors of public health may advise they reintroduce additional temporary measures such as increased testing or face coverings.
“But face-to-face education should be prioritised.”
There were 31,348 new Covid cases and a further 122 deaths reported yesterday, compared with 30,144 cases and 164 deaths last Saturday.