Covid in schools: Unions urge government to bring in stronger measures to prevent disruption

Upcoming weeks 'crucial' in determining winter plan for schools': Neil Connery reports

Pupils could have to wear masks in classrooms again under contingency plans to reduce disruption to schools caused by Covid after a recent spike in cases among children.

Education unions urged the government to consider reintroducing extra safety measures in schools amid concerns about the level of coronavirus circulating among secondary pupils.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that around one in 15 children in school years 7 to 11 in England are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week to October 2 - the highest positivity rate for any age group.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said although attendance rates are currently high, he was concerned about the impact of coronavirus this winter.

He revealed the government has a "contingency plan" with "lots of contingencies, including masks".

What is the Covid situation in schools?

Government figures show the number of children out of school for Covid-19 related reasons in England increased by two thirds in a fortnight.

The DfE estimates that 2.5% of all pupils – more than 204,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on Thursday last week.

This is up from 122,300 children, or 1.5% of all pupils, on September 16 – a 67% rise from two weeks ago.

Mr Zahawi said the "good news is that – and thanks to the brilliant teachers and support staff and parents and children – 99% of schools are open".

“Attendance has gone up, the last set of figures I looked at was about 90%, which obviously will fluctuate depending on infection rates.

“But my priority is to protect education, keep those schools open.”

Will the mask rule return? And what else is in the plan for schools?

Mr Zahawi said the government had drawn up plans to keep schools open this winter amid a spike in Covid-related absences.

The mandatory wearing of face coverings in schools and colleges was scrapped in May, but government guidance says directors of public health can advise schools to reintroduce the rule if cases spike.

Mr Zahawi said he did not want to see the return of Covid bubbles, where whole classes or year groups could be sent home if someone within a bubble tests positive.

Nadhim Zahawi, who recently took over from Gavin Williamson as education secretary, said his priority is to keep schools open. Credit: PA

The education secretary did not, however, rule out the return of the wearing of masks in the classroom in England.

He said: "We've got a contingency plan, as you would expect me to do (...) it contains lots of contingencies, including masks, absolutely."

But he said he was not looking to return to the bubble system, “because actually, you saw the fall off in attendance which really does harm mental wellbeing, mental health of children”.

What are the unions saying?

Five education unions wrote to Mr Zahawi, urging him to look at bringing back stronger safety measures for schools.

The GMB union, Unite, Unison, National Education Union (NEU) and NASUWT teaching union said they are also writing to local authorities and directors of public health asking them to consider measures in their local areas.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: "We are concerned that the Government is standing by while Covid cases surge across schools.

"It is evident that more needs to be done, and sooner rather than later, to prevent further massive disruption to children's education, caused either by children contracting Covid-19 or Covid-related staff absence."

Jim Kennedy, Unite national officer for education, called on Mr Zahawi to "reset the safety agenda for schools" and argued that with winter approaching "the whole range of measures to keep school children safe needs to be deployed - the rising level of infections in schools demand it".

The NASUWT said schools need more support with onsite testing "rather than relying on home testing, which is less effective" and called on the Government to consider reinstating the requirement for pupils who are contacts of a positive case to self-isolate.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "The protective measures in place in schools strike a balance between managing transmission risk - with enhanced ventilation, regular Covid testing and vaccinations of older students and staff - and reducing disruption to education by removing the need for close contacts in bubbles to self-isolate and for face coverings to be worn.

"Our guidance is clear that schools should only introduce additional measures if advised by local Directors of Public Health in response to high case rates within the school, and those measures should be temporary and carefully balance public health concerns with the need to prioritise face-to-face education."

Are schools ventilated enough to deal with Covid this winter?

Mr Zahawi said schools would soon be able to access technology to improve ventilation as he defended the slow rollout of carbon dioxide monitors which were first promised by the Department for Education (DfE) in August.

Asked on Sky News if there had been any progress, Mr Zahawi said: “They’re going out by the end of this month. We will have the real uplift in those numbers into schools, really important.

“We’re also looking at ventilation, and how we make sure that schools have access to ventilation.”

The DfE announced in August that 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors to help staff tackle poor ventilation and reduce the spread of Covid-19 would be rolled out across all state-funded education settings from September.

He said there was “lots of technology” surrounding ventilation and that central government was looking to invest in this but also “create a market that schools can access if they need”.

He said supply had been an issue in getting CO2 monitors to schools.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “So we’ve had several thousand delivered, by the end of this month we’ll be touching sort of 80-90,000, and then through November, we scale up to all 300,000 will be delivered.”

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Asked why the delivery had taken so long, Mr Zahawi said: “I think it’s – obviously I’ve only been in department for two weeks – but I think it’s a combination of supply and making sure we’ve got supply, and then working with schools to see how many they need in each school.

"But we are ramping up through this month and next month.”

In Wales, secondary school and college pupils will be advised to take daily lateral flow tests for seven days if someone in their household tests positive for coronavirus, the Welsh Government has announced.

In Scotland, an advisory group on education met on Tuesday to discuss the possible removal of face coverings in classrooms.