English schools told to delay seeking help with small Covid outbreaks

DfE advises measures should be taken only once a threshold of infections has been reached

Universities, schools and nurseries in England have been advised to delay seeking help in dealing with Covid-19 outbreaks until a cluster involving as many as 10% of staff, students or children have contracted the virus.

A new “contingency framework” issued by the Department for Education (DfE) to all education settings in England – ranging from universities and colleges to after-school tuition and youth clubs – advises that preventive measures such as wearing masks or remote learning should be used only after discussion with public health officers, once a “threshold” of infections has been reached.

School, university and college union leaders said the updated framework was likely to be inadequate. Meanwhile, a commentary in the British Medical Journal said: “If vaccination coverage is below 90%, colleges will have to rely on measures such as regular testing, masking and distancing to keep campuses safe.”

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the government was “entirely missing the point” with its framework. “A repeat of last year’s chaos – which saw thousands of students locked up in their halls of residence – can be avoided but only if the government gets serious about mitigation, rather than planning to act after the fact of outbreaks, closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted,” Grady said.

The DfE’s framework says that when educational institutions reopen in autumn, “attendance restrictions should only ever be considered as a last resort”. The department aims to avoid a repeat of the mass closures seen at the end of last school year, when up to 1 million pupils were absent for Covid-related reasons.

Instead, the DfE proposes that thresholds “can be used by settings as an indication for when to seek public health advice if they are concerned”. Until then the only “extra action” open to institutions includes increased ventilation or holding classes outdoors if possible.

The DfE suggests thresholds could be clusters of five children, pupils, students or staff “who are likely to have mixed closely” who test positive for Covid-19 within a 10-day period, or if 10% of children, pupils, students or staff test positive within 10 days of each other.

In smaller groups such as special needs settings with fewer than 20 pupils attending, the threshold could be two people with confirmed infections within 10 days of each other.

In universities, the DfE defines “close mixing” as students taking part in sporting or social activities or the same seminars or group learning, or in households with shared facilities.

The framework states that attendance restrictions “should only ever be considered as a short-term measure and as a last resort”. For individual settings including schools, decisions on attendance restrictions should be made “on public health advice in extreme cases” when other measures have failed.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the framework followed the government’s decision to end self-isolation for close contacts of positive Covid cases, as well as ending the use of pupil “bubbles” and contact tracing within schools.

“It is very important that NHS test and trace is effective in controlling transmission of the virus and that the contingency framework does not end up becoming the de facto Covid management system to varying extents across the country,” Barton said.

In a British Medical Journal blog, two experts argued that until 90% of university staff and students have been vaccinated, in the absence of vaccine passports, mitigation measures such as blended remote and in-person learning and mask wearing on campus should continue, alongside increased indoor ventilation and test-and-trace programmes.

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Richard Adams Education editor

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