Pupils could be regularly screened for Covid in bid to tackle absences

Test daily and burst the bubbles: Pupils could be regularly screened for Covid in bid to tackle absences as it emerges up to one in 20 children are away from school because of the virus

  • The number of children absent from school has quadrupled in a month
  • Last Thursday more than 375,000 or one in 20 was at home because of the virus
  • Vast majority are isolating due to infected classmate in their bubble
  • Ministers are examining plans to replace bubbles with system of daily testing  

Pupils could be tested daily and classroom ‘bubbles’ scrapped in a bid to address Covid-related absences – but not until September.

The number of children away from school has quadrupled in a month. Last Thursday more than 375,000 – or one in 20 – was at home because of the virus.

The vast majority are isolating because they were part of a bubble with an infected classmate.

Last night ministers said they would look at scrapping the current rules in time for the autumn term.

They are examining plans to abandon or water down the bubble system and replace it with a system of daily testing so pupils don’t have to isolate unless they are positive.

With the number of absences spiralling every week, some critics believe the Government should act now. But with just three weeks left of the school year, and with the final stage of unlocking not due before July 19, the changes are unlikely to be enacted until the autumn.

Meanwhile teachers are set to revolt over the plans, with unions describing the prospect of on-site testing centres as ‘something akin to field hospitals’.

The number of children away from school has quadrupled in a month. Last Thursday more than 375,000 – or one in 20 – was at home because of the virus (stock image)

Current rules state that children have to self-isolate for ten days if another pupil in their bubble tests positive for coronavirus.

A pilot scheme across 200 schools requiring daily testing of pupils who come into contact with a child who has Covid rather than sending them home will conclude today.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: ‘The vast majority of children and young people are in school, but I am aware that sadly a minority are experiencing disruption.’

He said he was working with Health Secretary Sajid Javid to ‘relax Covid measures in schools in line with wider work to remove restrictions across society’. ‘I’ll be looking closely at the issues around the need for ongoing isolation of bubbles and the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in education,’ he added.

It comes as figures reveal that around 5 per cent of pupils in England did not attend class for Covid-related reasons on June 24, up from 3.3 per cent on June 17 and 1.2 per cent on June 10.

Around 279,000 children were self-isolating due to a possible contact with a Covid-19 case, a further 24,000 pupils had a suspected case of coronavirus and 15,000 had a confirmed case. Yesterday, the Department for Education said ministers have written to secondary schools asking them to prepare to potentially replace isolation rules with regular testing.

A spokesman said: ‘We are provisionally asking secondary schools and colleges to prepare to offer on-site testing when students return for the new academic year, so that schools are ready in case it is needed to keep as many children as possible in face-to-face education.

‘We will provide further details about the approach to protective measures and test and trace in education from September in due course.’ On Monday, Mr Javid said he has asked for ‘fresh advice’ on the issue, adding that the policy is ‘having a huge knock-on impact’ on children’s education.

Meanwhile, schools minister Nick Gibb said the Government is carrying out a review into using testing to end self-isolation for school pupils in bubbles. ‘We are conducting trials of daily contact testing as a possible alternative to self-isolation,’ he told Sky News, adding that a final decision will be taken before July 19.

‘What matters also is that we keep the school safe and, if you go around our schools, you will see a raft of measures to reduce the infection rates within schools.

‘There’s extra hygiene, there’s staggered breaks, we keep children in bubbles, and there’s extra ventilation in classrooms to minimise the risk of transmission.’

Ministers are examining plans to abandon or water down the bubble system and replace it with a system of daily testing so pupils don’t have to isolate unless they are positive (stock image)

Scientists have broadly backed any change to the rules, with Professor Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, saying children ‘don’t get ill very much when they get this infection so the harm that’s done to them by closing schools or by excluding them from schools far exceeds any harm they get from the virus itself’.

He told LBC radio there needs to be a ‘balanced response’, adding that ‘anything that can be done to minimise the disruption to children’s education is a good thing as far as I’m concerned’.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘Identifying close contacts and asking them to self-isolate is an incredibly time-consuming process for schools and colleges and involves yet more educational disruption for the young people concerned.

‘It is clear that a different approach is needed in the autumn term but what we have heard so far from the Government amounts to no more than vague aspirations and there is still no robust and coherent plan in place.’

Professor Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘In my view the disadvantages of continuing to exclude large numbers of children in the autumn if one in the year has been in contact with a case of Covid would greatly outweigh any benefits.

‘To my mind the value of repeat testing of children with subsequent school exclusions have run their course and should not be continued in the autumn.’ 

Teachers hit out at plans for ‘field hospitals’  

By Eleanor Harding, Education Editor for the Daily Mail

Teachers are in revolt over plans to set up testing centres in schools and say it will be ‘akin to field hospitals’.

From September, secondary schools may be told to set up ‘asymptomatic test sites’, according to an email sent to heads from the Department for Education.

The move would ideally catch any outbreaks early, preventing too many pupils from having to isolate.

But yesterday the Association of School and College Leaders said it would lead to ‘more educational disruption’. Geoff Barton, general secretary, said: ‘It is completely unacceptable for the DfE to tell schools and colleges without any consultation and in the vaguest terms that they may have to set up something akin to field hospitals at the start of next term. There appears to be no understanding of the scale of the logistical challenge involved.’

The Government is conducting a pilot across 200 schools, that ends tomorrow, of daily testing of pupils who come into contact with a child who has Covid rather than sending them home to isolate for ten days. If successful, this could become policy from September.

Teachers are in revolt over plans to set up testing centres in schools and say it will be ‘akin to field hospitals’ (pictured: Children having lateral flow tests at school in Durham)

But some school leaders want immediate action rather than the rest of this term being ‘written off’.

Steve Chalke, who runs Oasis Academies which has 52 schools, said about 3,000 children, or 10 per cent of the total number of pupils, were currently off school and that it was not the first time for many.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It’s a pretty alarming situation. Something needs to be done about this now. The Government is thinking about reassessing the situation for September but there are still three weeks left of this summer term, we can’t just write off the rest of term. Three weeks is a long time in a young child’s life.’

Secondary pupils are supposed to test twice weekly for Covid but he said for many families, particularly those on zero-hour contracts, there was very little incentive to do this. ‘What incentive is there to do a lateral flow test at home if it’s going to penalise you and put you in an impossible situation and add to stress and anxiety?’, he said.

When pupils returned to classrooms in March there was a voluntary testing system. Anyone testing positive had to isolate, along with their household and anyone in their school bubble or who they had been in close contact with.

The new system, which may be compulsory, is likely to have more of an emphasis on negative test results so pupils can stay at school.

What madness! We’re robbing our children of their childhood

Commentary by Molly Kingsley for the Daily Mail 

Since the Government shut down schools 15 months ago, our children have been victims of the response to Covid. It has made a mockery of their education and destroyed the sanctity of the classroom.

Every day, UsforThem – the campaign group I founded with two other worried mums when schools were first closed in lockdown – receives anguished accounts of whole school years being sent home because of a single positive test.

This month, the number of children isolating at home has risen by 400 per cent in England. Last week alone, 375,000 children were off school – the vast majority not infected themselves but having merely come into contact with a classmate, one of a tiny minority who had tested positive. And yet, tragically, this is only part of the problem.

On Monday, the Mail reported that almost 100,000 pupils have effectively been ‘lost’ to the education system, having failed to return to school after the doors were reopened following lockdown: a rise of 50 per cent on the previous year. These ‘lost children of lockdown’ appear to have permanently excluded themselves from school.

Since the Government shut down schools 15 months ago, our children have been victims of the response to Covid. It has made a mockery of their education and destroyed the sanctity of the classroom (pictured: students return to school in Bedford in March 2021)

So I should be overjoyed at the intervention of Dame Rachel de Souza, the newly appointed Children’s Commissioner, who has used her first major interview to warn of the ‘trauma’ being inflicted on a generation of children and to call for urgent action to get children ‘back to normal’.

I can’t pretend I’m not pleased – UsforThem has for months been banging the drum on the need to prioritise children in our pandemic response – but I’m uneasy. Dame Rachel’s comments were followed by a promise by Sajid Javid, in his first appearance in the Commons as Health Secretary, that he would take ‘fresh advice’ on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education has issued guidance to schools suggesting isolation could be replaced by daily testing in September.

Seriously? By September, every adult who wants a vaccine will be double-jabbed. Daily testing of hundreds of children risks simply replacing one very disruptive policy with another.

September is not soon enough. There are three weeks left of the school term and change needs to happen today. Education is a fundamental right for children, not the icing on the cake.

The missed lessons are bad enough, but the consequences for children’s mental health are terrifying. There has been a 40 per cent increase in anti-depressants prescribed to under-17s. At UsforThem, the feedback we are getting is alarming. One mother told us how her daughter’s education has already been disrupted twice since the summer half-term: ‘She then went back last week for three days. Tonight we got a text that the whole year has to isolate again as more positive tests. Madness!’

Dame Rachel de Souza’s, the newly appointed Children’s Commissioner, comments were followed by a promise by Sajid Javid (pictured), in his first appearance in the Commons as Health Secretary, that he would take ‘fresh advice’ on the issue

Madness indeed, because the vast majority of children do not even show symptoms of Covid. There is no rational reason for this with 86 per cent of the population having Covid antibodies.

Even when schools are open, they are not functioning normally. Many have cancelled sport, clubs and school trips to museums or zoos. We parents are used to stern lectures from the Government about the ‘epidemic’ of childhood obesity, yet physical activity has been drastically curtailed – we are hearing of schools which have split playgrounds into year groups, meaning pupils have less space in which to run around.

While life for adults is increasingly getting back to normal as workplaces, pubs and stadiums reopen, children are missing essential rites of passage. Only about one in ten school sports days allowed parents to watch in person this term, even though these joyous events are generally held outdoors – and all this when 3,000 UEFA officials have been granted exemption from isolation rules to attend the final of the Euros at Wembley.

The latest, four-week, delay in lifting restrictions has meant hundreds of thousands of school leavers have lost the chance to say goodbye to friends and teachers in person, with these seminal events cancelled or moved to Zoom.

Transition days, residential trips and end-of-year plays have been falling like dominos. We have simply robbed our children – and they will never have the chance to experience these things again.

A year ago, Mr Javid predicted that lockdown would turn out to be a ‘perfect storm’ for abused children. Sadly, he was proved to be correct. Now he must act upon his concerns by prioritising children with practical measures, such as emphasising and funding children’s mental health services. And collectively, ministers must vow to get schools back to normal – and keep them there.

The challenge is nothing less than restoring millions of childhoods, blighted by isolation and lack of intellectual and physical stimulation. That is the only way we can atone for the terrible damage we have done to our children.

 Molly Kingsley is a co-founder of campaign group UsforThem

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