A union is calling for more “robust” Covid guidance after an academy with dozens of confirmed and potential cases sent pupils to a trust-wide sports competition for at least 20 schools.
It comes as data suggests rising infections and absences in education, and as other schools take more drastic measures including limiting activities and sending whole year groups home.
A spokesperson for the Malcolm Arnold Academy, Northampton, confirmed some of its pupils and staff attended the David Ross Education Trust’s Summer Cup at a sports ground on Thursday.
DRET’s photos on social media suggest at least 19 other schools participated. It had previously been postponed over Covid.
But unions had raised concerns beforehand about the 33 cases confirmed among pupils and staff by Wednesday. Another 20 were awaiting PCR results. All were at home and did not attend the event. Four more cases were confirmed on Thursday.
Jon Richards, Unison’s head of education, said such events seemed “reckless beyond belief”.
One source familiar with the plans claimed it could have been a “potential super-spreader event”, and attendees may have included vulnerable children and staff.
But Malcolm Arnold Academy’s spokesperson said all DRET schools were following DfE and Public Health England protocols, and noted the event was outside.
He said discussions were held with public health officials and the cluster “does not qualify as an outbreak”.
PHE advice only designates “outbreaks” when direct exposure has been identified between confirmed cases in non-residential settings, and where local community transmission is not sustained. Work is ongoing to see if the school’s cases were linked.
It is understood MAA pupils would not have attended if an “outbreak” had been confirmed. Control measures were also in place, including segregating pupils by school while not competing, and pre-arrival testing or symptom checking pupils.
Meanwhile reported in-school measures include recommending face coverings, restricting some visitors and holding parental meetings virtually.
Lucy Wightman, public health director at North and West Northamptonshire councils, said they offered advice on “prevention and control” after approaching the school and requesting its risk assessment. The school did not report needing further support or advice on sports events, she added.
Richards said official guidance “isn’t sufficiently robust” if schools with more than 30 cases could send pupils to such events with many other schools.
By contrast St Helens council last week said it limited off-campus sports activities and educational trips at five schools with confirmed “outbreaks” of between 12 and 50 cases.
Meanwhile James Kelwick, head of Westgate Academy in Lincoln, sent all year 4 pupils home last week after only 14 cases, mainly in the year group. It is not known if they met the “outbreak” criteria, however.
He told parents in a Facebook video it was not clear enough how closure decisions should be made, saying it was “worrying” that guidance “now puts all responsibility on schools”.
Hawkshead Esthwaite Primary in the Lake District went further after a rise in cases last week, sending all pupils home for 10 days.
Testing and masks feature in DfE contingency guidance, but it stresses the need to “minimise control measures that disrupt education” and calls attendance restrictions a “last resort”.
It says schools themselves need to “consider carefully” if education visits are appropriate and safe, while most restrictions are for local public health chiefs to decide.
“While we understand that schools want to return to ‘normal’, this can’t be done at the expense of the safety of pupils and staff,” added GMB organiser Stuart Richards. He said activities like sports events should be risk-assessed, and not take place if safety measures could not mitigate risks.
It comes as the latest data shows 268 Covid “incidents” reported by schools last week, up from 211 the previous week.. Meanwhile attendance data shows 104,000 absences last Thursday over confirmed or suspected cases, an increase since term began.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The measures in place day-to-day in schools strike a balance between managing transmission risk – with enhanced ventilation, regular covid testing, isolation of positive cases and vaccinations – and reducing disruption to children’s education experiences.”
She added that public health officials took into account “local circumstances, not just case numbers”.
“The school sought public health advice about the sports day, which was held outside where transmission risk is lower, and has multiple benefits for pupils’ physical education and wellbeing.”