Council tells heads to ‘self-manage’ Covid outbreaks

Local authority tells schools to stop reporting Covid cases amid an 'increase demand on public health services'

Local authority tells schools to stop reporting Covid cases amid an 'increase demand on public health services'

28 Jan 2022, 9:00

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A council has “abrogated its responsibility” after telling schools public health officials will no longer provide Covid advice unless a child is in hospital.

Instead Durham County Council is asking leaders to “self-manage” outbreaks.

Durham wrote to school leaders earlier this month detailing changes that allow it to “prioritise high-risk cases and provide targeted support” as fears rise of a “significant wave” of the Omicron variant.

Unions say the council has “abrogated its responsibility”, adding it is “essential” every school has access to local public health support when they feel it is needed.

But others welcome the change, saying the new system is “much easier” to work with.

‘Limited capacity’ stops support

In an email sent to school leaders, the council says a predicted “significant wave” of the Omicron variant will “increase demand on public health services”.

Because of the predicted “excess” demand, mainstream schools are told to stop reporting Covid cases to the council and “manage outbreaks in accordance with their own outbreak management plans”.

An attached template advises measures such as attendance restrictions, face coverings and bubbles.

But the Department for Education’s contingency framework says schools should “seek additional public health advice” when considering these sorts of measures.

The council told schools if further advice is needed, they should contact the DfE’s Covid helpline.

It will only provide local public health support to special schools or mainstream schools that have a “case in hospital”.

Council has ‘abrogated’ responsibility

Covid testing exams 2022 GCSEs A-levels exam boards
Julie McCulloch

Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the council “appears to have abrogated its responsibility to assist schools” in a move “at odds with the government’s contingency framework guidance”.

With school decisions about Covid measures “very much in the public spotlight … it is important that leaders get the full backing of their local public health team”.

Last week scores of secondary schools ignored the government’s last-minute rule change and opted to keep face masks in their classrooms.

Andy Byers, headteacher of Framwellgate school in Durham, said he did not feel “cast adrift” and the new system was “much easier”.

Schools could still get advice from the council’s education team, who in turn could contact local public health services if required, he said.

The system was “clear and well-organised” and provided good levels of local support and autonomy for schools, he said.

Region hit with Omicron surge

The north east currently has 1,259 Covid cases per 100,000 people, the highest of any region. Durham’s rate stands at 1,364.

However, nearby councils in Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland and South Tyneside told Schools Week their systems had not changed and schools were still advised to contact local public health teams.

absence attendance advisers Covid
James Bowen

Amanda Healy, Durham’s director of public health, said there were a “very high number” of Omicron cases in schools. The measures allowed the council “to target our support to higher-risk settings”.

“We continue to provide support to schools as much as we can, and will contact schools directly if data shows pupil case numbers are higher than anticipated and further assistance is needed.”

James Bowen, the National Association of Head Teachers’ director of policy, said that after two years of managing Covid cases, schools “may feel confident in dealing with these themselves”.

But it was “essential” that every school still had access to local public health officials whenever they felt it was needed, he said.

Councils also must be “mindful of the pressure” a Covid outbreak placed on leaders.

“School leaders are not experts in public health, and nor should we expect them to be.”

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  1. The Durham team has been fantastic throughout the pandemic. They are always available on the phone for help and support. We have literally called them hundreds of times and they have contacted us back, even late at night in their own time. Heads do have some common sense and if we are genuinely worried, we still call the Durham team – and they still answer!