The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that key Covid restrictions on education and childcare are to be scrapped at the end of the summer term. This means that the current system of sending whole bubbles home after a single positive case will end, as will the need for face masks, social distance measures, and staggered start and finish times.
Officially, the rules will be eased with the lifting of other national restrictions on July 19, but many schools will have finished for the summer before that date. The current Covid testing regime for school pupils will be transferred to the NHS Test, Track and Trace system, although two on-site tests will be required at the start of term in September.
The system of sending whole bubbles home from school has attracted strong criticism from those who say it has been having a detrimental effect on children’s education and development.
Mr Williamson acknowledged this in his speech to the Commons on 6 July, saying: "I do not think it is acceptable that children should face greater restrictions over and above those of wider society, especially since they have given up so much to keep older generations safe during this pandemic."
He added: "Where there are outbreaks schools and colleges may be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and they will also work with local health teams as they currently do now. We're also setting out new rules that mean from the 16 August children will only need to isolate if they have tested positive for Covid-19."
The latest official statistics show that as of 6 July, 641,000 school children were self-isolating because of a positive Covid test in their bubble. However, it is believed that only 28,000 pupils had a confirmed positive Covid diagnosis. Department for Education (DfE) figures show that in the autumn term, 33 million days of school were missed due to isolation rules.
From 16 August, no one under 18 years old will have to isolate if they are contacted by NHS Track and Trace, unless they have a positive Covid test. While many parents and some teachers will welcome the news, there are still some concerns.
The National Education Union accused the government of pursuing a ‘herd immunity’ policy, according to a report in The Guardian. Ministers have rejected his claim. Kevin Courtney, the NEU joint general secretary, said in a statement that while headteachers will welcome not being responsible for testing of pupils, he has concerns about the alternatives.
There are also concerns that as Covid cases continue to rise steeply in the UK, schools will face severe staff shortages as teachers go off sick or have to self-isolate.
The government has pledged £1.4bn to help schoolchildren in England catch up on lost education time during the pandemic. This figure has been criticised as well below what is really necessary, which is thought to be nearer £15bn. Exams including A Levels, AS Levels, and GCSEs have been cancelled this year, and replaced with teachers’ estimated grades.
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