Spring term Covid guidance changes: 7 things we learned

Air cleaning units only for schools with 'sustained high' CO2 levels, and teachers not expected to wear masks in classroom

Air cleaning units only for schools with 'sustained high' CO2 levels, and teachers not expected to wear masks in classroom

The government has this morning updated guidance for the new school term after announcing more measures to limit expected disruption caused by surging Omicron Covid cases.

Guidance on vulnerable children, self-isolation, testing and face coverings has been updated, and the government has set out which schools will be eligible to receive free air-cleaning units.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Air cleaning units only for schools with CO2 levels nearly double watchdog guidelines

The government announced today that a further 7,000 air-cleaning units will be provided to schools in England, though unions have warned this number is “inadequate”.

Now the DfE has published a guide on how to apply for the units, which will be given out based on schools’ CO2 levels and occupation density.

To qualify for a government-funded air-cleaning unit, a school must have “sustained” CO2 readings of 1,500 particles per million (ppm) or higher for at least one week while the room is occupied.

Less than 800ppm implies a space is well ventilated. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also recommends rooms are kept below 800ppm.

More than 300,000 CO2 monitors were sent out to schools last term.

Schools must also be in need of lengthy remedial building works to address poor ventilation that cannot be completed before the end of February this year. Air-cleaning units “may be suitable” while remedial work is undertaken, but “should not be used as a substitute for ventilation”.

Units will also be allocated for teaching spaces only, but not non-teaching rooms like staff rooms, halls, corridors and dining rooms.

Applications will open on January 4 and close on January 17. The DfE has said it will start delivering the devices from next month.

2. Teachers at the front of class ‘not ordinarily expected’ to wear masks

The government is recommending that face coverings be worn in classrooms from next week.

However, in guidance the DfE said it would “not ordinarily expect teachers to wear a face covering in the classroom if they are at the front of the class”.

This is to support education delivery, the government said. However, settinghs should be “sensitive to the needs of individual teachers”.

3. Vulnerable children definition expanded

The government has updated its guidance on which children should be prioritised for education should schools have to partially close. In these instances, the children of key workers and pupils considered vulnerable must continue to be offered face-to-face education.

Children were previously considered vulnerable if they had a social worker, an education, health and care plan or if they were considered by schools or councils to be “otherwise vulnerable”.

But the definition has now been expanded to include children who have been known to children’s social care services in the past, and those whose cirucumstances might be “particularly challenging” because of “domestic abuse, parental offending, adult mental health issues, and drug and alcohol addiction”.

However, the DfE said the list was “not intended to be exhaustive”, and that local assessment would be “based on knowledge of family and community risk”.

The full list is available here.

4. Isolation reduced to 7 days by lateral flow testing

The government updated its guidance for the general public on isolation requirements for confirmed cases of Covid last week. It has now told leaders how this will affect schools.

Under the change, instead of isolating for 10 days, those who test positive on a PCR test will only have to isolate for seven days providing they get negative lateral flow test results on days six and seven of their isolation.

The first test must be taken no earlier than day six, and the two tests must be taken 24 hours apart.

“If both these test results are negative, and you do not have a high temperature, you may end your self-isolation after the second negative test result and return to your education setting from day 8,” the DfE said.

This guidance applies to adults, and the government recently confirmed it also applies to children who usually attend an education or childcare setting.

However, the guidance also “strongly advises” those who end their isolation before the 10 days are up to limit close contact with people outside their households and to limit contact with anyone at higher risk of severe illness.

Special school head and SEND campaigner Simon Knight pointed out on twitter that this advice is “incompatible with most schools and probably all special schools”.

Health and social care workers, including those working in education settings, also need to continue testing for three days even if they return to work after two negative lateral flow tests. Further guidance for that specific sector is here.

5. DfE ‘working’ to keep schools stocked with tests

Secondary schools have been asked to test returning pupils on-site during the first week of this term. The DfE invited schools to order test kits in advance of pupils returning.

Rapid tests were unavailable on the government website several times over the festive period.

DfE said today it was working “closely” with the UK Health Security Agency to ensure schools receive “adequate supplies” of test kits.

Schools that run out can order more through the online ordering platform, and should call 119 if they need further advice or support. However, schools have been told to “only order the test kits your setting requires”, given the “huge demand” for the kits nationally.

6. Keep a ‘small’ stock of masks

The government announced today that it is reintroducing its recommendation that masks be worn in secondary classrooms.

In its email to leaders, the DfE said all settings should have a “small contingency stock” of face coverings, in case anyone has forgotten or damaged their own.

To support this, the Department of Health and Social Care has begun delivering face coverings to schools, and “most” secondary schools should have received their delivery by the end of last term.

Deliveries for the remaining schools will resume from this Friday, January 7.

7. Updated vaccine guidance due ‘shortly’

Last week, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended that children aged five to 11 in a “clinical risk group”, or who are household contacts of someone who is immunosuppressed, should be offered two 10 micrograms doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

It comes after the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved a new paediatric formulation of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 after it was found to have met the required safety, quality and effectiveness standards.

The DfE has told leaders that the NHS was working through updated guidance and would set out how this would be operationalised “shortly”.

The JCVI also recommended that a Pfizer booster be offered to vulnerable children aged 12 to 15 and all young people aged 16 to 17.

Again, the NHS will communicate how eligible children and young people will get their boosters “shortly”.

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