640,000 children off school in England as Covid bubbles scrapped from 19 July

Education secretary sweeps away containment regime in England as absences due to coronavirus surge

More than 640,000 children in England were absent from school last week due to Covid, as the government announced its plans to sweep away the current system for containing Covid outbreaks within schools, colleges and nurseries.

In a statement to parliament, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that from 19 July grouping pupils into protective bubbles within schools, colleges and nurseries in England would no longer be required, along with several other preventive measures, with the use of self-isolation for children with close contacts to end in mid-August.

“I do not think that it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions, over and above those of wider society, especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe during this pandemic,” Williamson told MPs.

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, accused Williamson of trying to “wish away” the challenges facing schools.

“Today’s statement offers no clarity on how the government will stop infections spiralling. The Conservatives’ inadequate testing regime, lack of action on ventilation and their recklessness at the border have put our children’s education at risk,” Green said.

Headteachers would also no longer have to trace contacts within schools, Williamson said, with responsibility being handed to NHS test and trace from 19 July.

The government’s latest guidance removes restrictions such as staggering school start and finish times, social distancing, and recommendations for the wearing of masks in classrooms, communal areas and school transport.

From 16 August those under 18 identified as close contacts will be advised to take a PCR test, and only need to isolate if they test positive or have symptoms of Covid. Children in early years education should only take a PCR test if a member of their household tests positive.

Secondary school pupils will still be required to take twice-weekly lateral flow tests for at least the first month of the new school year, as well as two on-site tests before the start of the term. But Williamson said the practice would be reviewed before the end of September.

Staff and pupils who test positive using a lateral flow test will need to isolate and take a PCR test. A negative result from a PCR test taken within two days will allow staff and pupils to immediately return to school.

Doing away with bubbles from 19 July means many schools will have just a few days before the end of the term, opening the way for end-of-year assemblies or events involving all pupils. But others will have already closed for the summer break.

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said schools needed clear guidance from the government to counter “conflicting views” from parents over testing and safety. “Yet again, the government announcements risk more confusion at a time when there is a need for clarity and certainty,” Roach said.

Williamson also said there would be no restrictions on in-person teaching at universities in England from next term.

The announcement came as figures from the Department for Education (DfE) revealed a 66% increase in the number of pupils infected or self-isolating in the past week.

The number of schoolchildren with confirmed Covid infections jumped from 15,000 on 24 June to 28,000 on 1 July, while the number self-isolating because of suspected Covid contacts within school rose from 279,000 to 471,000 last week. Including contacts outside school, more than 560,000 children were self-isolating.

The latest DfE statistics showed that last week more than 5% of primary school teachers were absent for Covid-related reasons, while a further 4.5% were absent for other reasons – suggesting staffing levels may be behind the increase in school closures. Last week more than 18,000 students and pupils were off because their schools or colleges were closed due to Covid.

Unison, which represents many school support staff, said the government’s latest measures were alarming: “Safety measures like bubbles and self-isolation are proven to reduce the spread of the virus. With around one in 10 pupils reporting symptoms of long Covid weeks after infection, th​is is a dangerous gamble from the government.”

The DfE’s new guidance makes a brief mention of the need for better ventilation in classrooms, and says schools will need outbreak management plans to include “the possibility that in some local areas it may become necessary to reintroduce ‘bubbles’ for a temporary period”.

New research from the London School of Economics has found that pupils in England lost an average of 61 days of schooling between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and April this year, fewer than those in Wales or Scotland.

Overall, pupils across the UK lost out on a third of their usual learning time, even taking into account learning at home. Pupils in Scotland lost 64 days, while those in Wales lost 66 days, partly because of different school closure policies but also because of different term times. Pupils in Northern Ireland lost 61 days.

Across the UK, poorer pupils lost more learning time than their wealthier classmates, but varying school closure policies meant that the most disadvantaged pupils in England lost less learning than the most affluent pupils elsewhere in the UK.

Contributors

Richard Adams and Sally Weale

The GuardianTramp

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