Staff should wear face coverings in communal areas and corridors and introduce similar rules for secondary students from today, while close contacts of anyone with new Covid variant Omicron must self-isolate for 10 days.
The changes to primary and secondary school Covid guidance (in full below) were communicated to headteachers in a Department for Education email sent at just after 4pm on Sunday. Full guidance was published on Monday morning.
The DfE said the measures will be introduced as a “precaution to slow down the spread of the [Omicron] variant while we gather more information”.
A Downing Street spokesperson also dismissed the suggestion children should be exempted from new self-isolation rules for close contacts. But schools breaking up early was “not something we are looking to do”.
Here’s what schools need to know …
Face masks in communal areas for staff in all schools and secondary pupils
For schools with pupils in year 7 and above, the guidance reads: “Face coverings should be worn by pupils, staff and adult visitors when moving around the premises, outside of classrooms, such as in corridors and communal areas.”
Secondary pupils should also continue to wear face coverings on public and school transport, but face coverings are not required in classrooms or outdoors.
In primary schools, “we recommend that face coverings should be worn by staff and
adults (including visitors) when moving around in corridors and communal areas”.
A DfE blog adds they are “strongly advising” the “temporary” measures from Monday.
10-day isolation for Omicron close contacts
The current guidance on contact tracing and isolation remains unchanged.
However, in addition, any “suspected or confirmed close contacts of the Omicron variant will be asked to isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status or age”. They will also be asked to book a PCR test.
Schools are not expected to undertake contact tracing, with NHS Test and Trace identifying positive cases.
The guidance adds: “You will be contacted directly and told to isolate.”
It says “further actions” for schools may be advised by local incident management teams over Omicron cases.
Re-consider international trips
The guidance says schools “will want to consider whether to go ahead with planned international educational visits at this time, recognising the risk of disruption to education resulting from the need to isolate and test on arrival back into the UK”.
All travellers arriving in the UK need to isolate and get a PCR test by day two after arrival.
Parents travelling abroad should also “bear in mind the impact on their child’s education” which may result from any requirement to quarantine or isolate upon return”.
South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe were moved onto the “red list” on Friday. Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia were added on Sunday.
Making schools ‘as safe as possible’
DfE said it had discussed the update with unions ASCL and NAHT, alongside the CST multi-academy trust membership body. They “agreed it would be helpful to issue today [Sunday] rather than wait until Monday”.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi pledged to “continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and children continue to benefit from classroom teaching”.
The government had told secondary schools on Friday they should prepare to test pupils for Covid on-site when they return after the Christmas holidays in January.
12- to 15-year-olds set for second dose
Meanwhile the government’s vaccine advisers recommended separately today that 12- to 15-year-olds receive their second doses, 12 weeks after their first, and adults under 40 should be able to receive booster doses.
Health secretary Sajid Javid immediately accepted the recommendations in a statement in the Commons. But only 41 per cent of those aged 12-15 had received their first dose as of Saturday.
Advisers said at a briefing that rollout details will be confirmed by the NHS in the coming days, but they would require a “national effort”, praising volunteers’ role in the initial rollout.
They also promised a recommendation on the Pfizer vaccine’s use among 5- to 11-year-olds by Christmas.