What Step 4 means for schools: Everything you need to know

Masks, bubbles and contact tracing are all set to end for schools when the government moves to step 4 of its Covid roadmap on July 19.

The Department for Education has published guidance today.

Here’s your trusty Schools Week round-up of all the important bits.


1. Bubbles are gone…

From July 19, bubbles will be popped. That means there will be no bubbles for summer schools.

However, for some schools, July 19 will be in the last week of term. For these schools, the government punts the decision right back to heads, advising “you may wish to continue with these measures until the end of your summer term”.

Ditching bubbles means assemblies can resume and no need to avoid mixing at lunch.

2. …but they could come back in some areas

Schools have been told to “make sure” outbreak plans “cover the possibility that in some local areas it may become necessary to reintroduce ‘bubbles’ for a temporary period, to reduce mixing between groups”.

Such a decision would “not be taken lightly”.


3. No more contact tracing for schools (but isolation until end of term)

From August 16, children will no longer have to isolate if they are a Covid close contact. This means the isolation of close contacts will “stay in place until the end of term”.

But schools will no longer have to contact trace. After step 4, close contacts will be identified via NHS Test and Trace. Tracers will “work with the positive cases to identify close contacts”. It’ not clear how this will be done with younger pupils without involving their school.

Contacts from school will “only be traced by NHS Test and Trace where the positive case specifically identifies the individual as being a close contact”.

“This is likely to be a small number of individuals who would be most at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the nature of the close contact. You may be contacted in exceptional cases to help with identifying close contacts, as currently happens in managing other infectious diseases.”


4. Face coverings gone

From July 19, face coverings will no longer be advised for pupils, staff or visitors in either the classroom of communal areas. Face coverings will also no longer be recommended on dedicated school transport.

However, public health officials may advise masks are worn again in the case of local outbreaks. (Government advises all schools to have outbreak plans, more info on these here).


5. ‘Improve fresh air flow’ (and ventilation pilot underway)

Government has been criticised for not doing much to help schools improve ventilation. The guidance advises schools to “identify any poorly ventilated spaces as part of your risk assessment and take steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas”, which is particularly important for events with visitors such as school plays.

“Mechanical ventilation…should be adjusted to increase the ventilation rate wherever possible. If possible, systems should be adjusted to full fresh air or, if this is not possible, then systems should be operated as normal as long as they are within a single room and supplemented by an outdoor air supply.”

Government has not provided any specific cash to help schools improve ventilation.

The guidance also advises schools to open windows but “balance the need for increased ventilation while maintaining a comfortable temperature”.

DfE is also working with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and NHS England on a pilot to measure CO2 levels in classrooms. This will also be “exploring options to help improve ventilation in settings where needed”.


6. On-site testing is back

DfE says as children will be mixing during the summer holidays, all secondary pupils “should” (note: not mandatory) receive two on-site lateral flow tests, three to five days apart, on their return in September”.

“Settings may commence testing from 3 working days before the start of term and can stagger return of pupils across the first week to manage this. Pupils should then continue to test twice weekly at home until the end of September, when this will be reviewed.”

Staff “should” also take twice weekly tests at home until the end of September. Secondaries have been urged to “retain a small testing site on-site until further notice so they can offer testing to pupils who are unable to test themselves at home”.

There is no need for primary age pupils (those in year 6 and below) to test over the summer period.


7. Negative PCR tests will override rapid result

Staff and pupils with a positive rapid test will isolate and will need to take a more accurate PCR test.

If taken within two days, a negative PCR test will over-ride the rapid result meaning staff and pupils can return to school.


8. Schools can refuse pupils with Covid symptoms

If a parent of a pupil with Covid symptoms insisted they attend school, leaders can “take the decision to refuse the pupil if, in your reasonable judgement, it is necessary to protect other pupils and staff from possible infection with Covid-19”.

“Your decision would need to be carefully considered in light of all the circumstances and current public health advice,” the guidance states.

9. Maintain remote education capacity for the next year

Isolating pupils should continue to get remote education. Schools “should maintain your capacity to deliver high quality remote education for next academic year, including for pupils who are abroad, and facing challenges to return due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, for the period they are abroad”.

Free school meal support should also be provided for eligible isolating pupils.


10. Vulnerable staff ‘may wish to take extra precautions’

DfE says school leaders are “best placed to determine the workforce required to meet the needs of their pupils”.

Clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people are no longer advised to shield “but may wish to take extra precautions to protect themselves, and to follow the practical steps set out in the CEV guidance to minimise their risk of exposure to the virus”.

“Staff in schools who are CEV should currently attend their place of work if they cannot work from home.”

Updated guidance will be published before step 4.


11. International visits allowed from September

From the new term, DfE advises that schools “can go on international visits that have previously been deferred or postponed and organise new international visits for the future”.

But schools should ensure any new bookings have “adequate financial protection in place”. International visits before the start of the autumn term continue to be advised against.

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