The Department for Education has published an updated Covid-19 contingency framework for schools, setting out what measures may be needed in response to local outbreaks.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Have an ‘outbreak management plan’ (and DfE hands power back to councils)
The guidance states schools should have “outbreak management plans”, outlining “how they would operate” if any of the measures described in the guidance were recommended for their setting or area.
The contingency framework published in November stated schools should not implement restrictive measures without the “explicit agreement” of the DfE.
But the latest edition states that councils, directors of public health and Public Health England health protection teams can recommend certain measures for individual schools or clusters of settings.
This may happen to help manage outbreaks in schools, or if there is an “extremely high prevalence” of Covid-19 in the community and other measures have failed to reduce transmission, or as part of a package of measures “responding to a variant of concern”.
If there is a need to address more widespread issues across an area, “ministers will take decisions on an area-by-area basis”.
2. Plan for limits on attendance
Schools’ outbreak management plans should cover the “possibility they are advised to limit attendance”, though such restrictions “should only ever be considered as a last resort”.
As with other periods of restricted attendance, schools should provide “high quality remote education” for all pupils or those not attending.
Restrictions on attendance may be advised by local teams for individual settings or clusters of “closely linked settings”.
In most cases, a cluster will be “no more than 3 or 4 settings linked in the same outbreak”, but regional partnership teams “should exercise judgement based on the local context”.
If attendance restrictions are required across an area, the government will publish “detailed operational guidance” for schools.
If restrictions on pupil attendance are needed, school leaders “will be best placed to determine the workforce required onsite and if it is appropriate for some staff to work remotely”.
3. Prioritise certain year groups
The DfE said early years and primary settings should be “prioritised to continue to operate as normal”, although the department “may advise that other groups should be prioritised”.
If some attendance restrictions are needed at primary level, vulnerable children, children of critical workers, children in reception, year 1 and year 2 should still be allowed to attend.
If some secondary restrictions are required, then vulnerable children and young people, children of critical workers, pupils in years 10, 11, 12 and 13, and other pupils who were due to take external exams this academic year should still be allowed to attend.
If attendance needs to be restricted further at either phase, vulnerable children and young people and children of critical workers should still be able to attend.
4. Special school priorities in line with mainstream
If restrictions in special schools are needed, the DfE’s attendance expectations “will remain in line with the equivalent age groups in mainstream schools”.
Alternative provision “should continue to allow all children or pupils to attend full time”.
In situations where they cannot provide their usual interventions and provision, special schools “should seek to resume as close as possible to the specified provision for the child or young person as soon as possible”, and AP should “seek to resume as close as possible to full-time provision, as soon as possible”.
5. Plan for reintroduction of on-site testing
On-site asymptomatic testing was introduced in secondary schools when pupils returned in March, but pupils were then asked to switch to twice weekly testing at home.
In the latest guidance, government said secondary schools and colleges “should make sure their outbreak management plans cover the possibility that the reintroduction of asymptomatic testing sites (ATS) is advised in their area”.
This could include “advice to increase the use of home testing by staff, pupils and students in secondary schools and colleges”.
The reintroduction of on-site testing may be advised by local directors of public health for individual settings or small clusters, or in settings across areas where an “enhanced response package” has been deemed appropriate.
Reintroducing ATS “would need to be agreed with schools and colleges”.
It comes after the Department of Health and Social Care announced further support including supervised in-school testing and discretion to reintroduce face coverings in a number of local authority areas last week.
6. Face coverings could be brought back
A national recommendation that face coverings be worn in classrooms and by pupils in communal areas was lifted on May 17, although some schools in areas hard-hit by the Delta variant have kept the requirement in place.
The latest guidance states that outbreak management plans put together by secondary schools should “cover the possibility that it is advised that face coverings should temporarily be worn more widely in settings in their area”. This would be advised by local directors of public health.
This “may include face coverings in communal areas (for pupils and students) and/or classrooms (for both pupils, students and staff)”.
In all cases “any educational drawbacks in the recommended use of face coverings should be balanced with the benefits in managing transmission”, the DfE said.
7. Ministers may reintroduce shielding
Shielding for people who are clinically extremely vulnerable was paused earlier this year.
But guidance states ministers could agree to reintroduce shielding “in the event of a major outbreak or variant of concern that poses a significant risk to individuals on the shielded patient list”.
Schools should “make sure their outbreak management plans cover this possibility”, but the guidance states shielding “can only be reintroduced by national government”.
8. Limits on trips and performances may be needed
Schools have been told to make sure their outbreak management plans “cover the possibility” that they are asked to limit residential trips, open days, transition or taster days, parental attendance in settings and performances.
The guidance states that in “most circumstances”, children should be allowed to attend summer schools “as planned”, but the academic element of the programme “may need to be delivered remotely”.
Children should still also be allowed to attend holiday activities and food programme provision “in most circumstances”.
However, if a local authority decides not to hold face-to-face holiday clubs as a result of Covid, for example if they are cancelled following government advice, they should “operate flexibly to ensure that eligible children still receive support that meets the aims of the programme”.