Schools have waited over three days for official advice on how to deal with coronavirus cases – leaving heads in “limbo” as local public health teams are “overwhelmed”.
An investigation by Schools Week has uncovered examples across the country of schools being failed by local Public Health England (PHE) teams.
The government has promised schools will get “rapid” assistance from health officials who will “guide them through the actions they need to take” following positive cases.
But two schools have told of delays of nearly four days to get advice. Meanwhile, another school reported being told to make their own decision – but was then told by their local health protection team they had been “too heavy handed”.
Unions fear the toll the chaos is putting on headteachers who are being forced to decide between waiting for official advice or making their own call amid tensions from parents.
Delays also mean pupils are unnecessarily self-isolating from school just weeks after returning. The findings will heap more criticism on the government’s handling of the back-to-school push following widespread problems with staff and pupils with covid symptoms unable to get tests.
PHE said this evening it was “aware that a small number” of schools have encountered delays, and are working with the Department for Education to “develop a solution” so advice is issued “in the most immediate way possible”.
Pupils forced to stay at home as schools left waiting for help
Government guidance on full reopening states schools must take “swift action” to contact their local health protection team when they become aware someone has tested positive.
We have had to largely make our own decision about how the situation is managed
The guidance adds local health experts will then carry out a “rapid risk assessment” and “guide them through the actions they need to take”.
But a trust leader in the North West, who did not want to be named, told Schools Week they had notified their local PHE team of an outbreak at one of their schools, and were told a consultant would be “in touch shortly to provide help and guidance”.
“That was over three days ago now, and we have had to largely make our own decision about how the situation is managed,” the added.
In a letter to parents yesterday, Sir John Lawes School, in Hertfordshire, said they had been waiting “nearly four days” after contacting PHE for advice following a confirmed case.
Headteacher Claire Robins said the delay was down to the local team sourcing someone with “experience in advising secondary schools”.
Robins, who called the delay “completely unsatisfactory”, said the school had “continued to take the line of minimising risk” while awaiting official guidance and told the whole year 9 group to stay at home.
PHE has today provided advice and the majority of pupils have now been allowed to attend school again.
Meanwhile, Ben Lawrence, head of Frederik Gough school, in Scunthorpe, said his local PHE team was unable to help over the weekend “due to the high volume of calls that they are receiving. This has left us without advice”.
In a letter to parents, seen by the Grimsby Telegraph, he added: “We have therefore been left to make a decision and have done this with what we believe to be a proportionate, sensible responsible.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the “very serious problem” left heads making a “public health call themselves on who to send home to self-isolate, in the knowledge that whatever they do they may be criticised”.
“Our impression is that some health protection teams are overwhelmed and are unable to cope with demand. The government must urgently address this issue so there is sufficient capacity to ensure that this essential advice can be provided immediately.”
Calls for ‘consistency’ over shifting self-isolation guidance
At the start of term, PHE advised all pupils within a bubble with a positive case at Buile Hill Academy, in Salford, were sent to self-isolate.
However, following a more recent case at the school, the advice was to only send home children who have been in direct contact with the child who tested positive.
David Clayton, chief executive of Consilium Academies, which runs the school, told Schools Week: “We understand advice and guidance evolves, but within a short space of time the “tightening” of the rules creates some significant challenges when providing reassurance and clarity to a community.”
Two days later we received another phone call advising us that our interpretation of the guidance was too heavy handed
Another academy trust had similar concerns. A day after they were advised to send a bubble home to self-isolate, PHE requested the academy consider bringing back into school students who had not been in close contact with the child who tested positive.
Schools fear that health teams are being pressured into limiting the disruption in schools amid concerns over how many pupils were off.
Meanwhile, a school leader at a primary school in the north west, said they were told to follow the published guidance by PHE after being notified of a positive test.
As a result, they told parents of pupils from that bubble their children would need to self-isolate.
But the head said: “Two days later, we received another phone call from PHE advising us that our interpretation of the guidance was too heavy handed. We explained how pupils had interacted with other children in their bubble during playtime and lunchtime, and we were then told we would need a “good reason” not to ask most of the children to return to the school.
“As a result we had to go back to our parents and give a different message.”
Meanwhile a trust leader, who did not want to be named, said they were informed by the East Midlands health protection team they won’t give advice – instead they just record information and said the schools understand the settings best. Schools Week has been unable to contact the local HPT for comment.
An email sent to schools from Durham’s public health team, seen by Schools Week, says they must now instead contact the local authority because of the “overwhelming call volume”.
‘Without clear advice – schools are left in limbo’
A spokesperson for the NAHT school leaders’ union said it was becoming “increasingly clear” that some local health protection teams are “struggling to cope with the demand they are facing”.
“Without that clear, timely advice schools are left in limbo. Put simply, this need addressing and it needs addressing very quickly.”
Schools Week understands leaders’ unions have received scores of similar concerns, and now plan to write to prime minister Boris Johnson to flag the issues.
A spokesperson for PHE said this evening they are “aware that a small number of schools have encountered delays in receiving guidance at a local level on what steps they should take to manage a COVID-19 case.
“We are working closely with colleagues at the Department for Education to assist them in developing a solution to this problem which will enable schools to access the advice that they need in the most immediate way possible.”
Update: Headteacher unions have since written to the prime minister urging him to “personally take charge” to sort out testing and PHE advice delays. (Read the full letter here)