Covid-19 winter plan: What does it mean for schools?

Education settings will be among those to trial regular Covid-19 testing as an alternative to self-isolation for those who have been in contact with confirmed Covid-19 cases, the government has said.

The prime minister this afternoon launched his Covid-19 winter plan, which set out how restrictions will work from December 2, when the country comes out of the second national lockdown.

Boris Johnson confirmed today that from next week, the country will return to a three-tier system of local restrictions, but with some changes to the system that was in place before November 5.

Here’s what schools need to know about the plan.


1. Schools will stay open …

Under all three tiers that will be in place across the country from December 2, schools will remain open and pupils will be told to attend school or college “as normal, unless they are self-isolating”.

There will also be an exemption to gathering limits for supervised activities provided for children, including wraparound childcare taking place before and after school, groups and activities for under-18s and children’s playgroups.


2. … and don’t change holiday dates

The winter plan states that schools “should not change their Christmas holidays or close early this term”.

It comes after Schools Week revealed today that an academy trust had been threatened with action by ministers if it did not U-turn on its decision to close early for Christmas. Stockport Council has also told parents that schools in its area will no longer run on-site provision for the last two days of term.

According to the winter plan, parents ” should continue to send their children to school during term time and students should continue to attend college right up until the end of term”.

A time-limited change to social restrictions over Christmas “does not require any children to be taken out of school prematurely”, it continued.


3. ‘Education settings’ will pilot testing as alternative to isolation

An approach that will see regular repeated testing used as an alternative for self-isolation will be piloted in “education settings”. But the government has not said which types of settings it will apply to.

The winter plan has set out a plan to introduce frequent testing “as an alternative to the need for self-isolation for people who have had close contact with someone who has Covid-19”.

Under such a system, those who had been in contact would be offered regular tests and will only have to self-isolate if they test positive.

The approach will be trialled in Liverpool first, then “some institutional settings”, including the NHS, care homes, education and employers, before the end of the year.

If successful, it will be rolled out across the country from next year.


4. Tier 3 LAs will get rapid testing ‘surge’ – including for schools

The government’s winter plan states that rapid testing will continue to be piloted in schools.

Local authorities that go into tier 3 from December 2 will also be offered the opportunity to participate in a “six week testing surge”.

This will enable local authorities “to offer tests to the general population as well as targeting high-risk workplaces and industries, hard-to-reach communities and schools in a coordinated effort to drive prevalence down”.


5. Clinically extremely vulnerable can return to school

As national restrictions end next week, current guidance stating that clinically extremely vulnerable people should not go to work or school will also cease to be in effect.

Updated guidance published by the Department for Education states that from December 2, “all staff can continue to attend school in all three local restriction tiers”.

However, schools in tier 3 areas “may wish to discuss flexibilities that support clinically extremely vulnerable staff, such as staggered start times to reduce travel during rush hour”.

“In the future, the government will only reintroduce formal restrictive shielding advice in some local areas in tier 3: very high alert where this has been advised by the chief medical officer, and only for a limited period of time.”


6. More guidance ‘in the coming days’

According to the winter plan, the DfE will update its guidance “in the coming days” to reflect “how settings should operate under the strengthened tier system”.

The guidance will also include an updated contingency framework “in the exceptional circumstances in which further restrictions on education are required in any area”.

However, the government said it would “do everything possible to avoid enacting those contingency measures at any stage”.

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