Teachers’ leaders condemn ‘headlong rush’ to live with Covid

Headteachers say plans may be ‘counter-productive’ and cause conflict between schools and parents

21 February 2022

Teachers’ leaders have criticised the Prime Minister’s announcement on “living with Covid” in England for its lack of detailed guidance for schools, with the plans described as more of a “headlong rush” out of restrictions than a “sensibly phased approach”.

Boris Johnson told the Commons: “From today we’re removing the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing.”

In the guidance for “Living with Covid” published following his announcement, it said that from Monday the Government was removing guidance “for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing”.

But teachers’ leaders and school leaders have said the announcement could cause further disruption to education, and create conflict between schools and parents.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said that “it is not the case that we have defeated Covid, nor that everyone can ‘live’ with it”.

She said that Government attendance data showed the “high disruption caused by illness and isolation” and that although the Omicron variant had “faded” across the population, “it is nonetheless a presence in schools”.

Dr Bousted said that schools needed to know whether chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and the chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance supported the move to end isolation for those testing positive with Covid, which will come into place from Thursday.

“It is vital that public health, not political considerations, decide that date. We also want to know if the Government is planning any further investment in measures such as improved ventilation,” she said.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added that where Covid was concerned, “saying that it is at an end does not make it so”.

He said the announcement felt like a “headlong rush”, not a “sensibly phased approach”.

Mr Barton said that in removing legal requirements to self-isolate following a positive test, along with twice-weekly testing, there was a risk of increased disruption if more positive cases came into classrooms.

“Staff and pupils are often absent not just because they test positive but because they are actually ill with the coronavirus and this will obviously not abate if there is more transmission,” he said.

“We are also concerned about where this leaves vulnerable staff and pupils, or those with a household member who is vulnerable,” he added.

“These individuals will inevitably feel more scared and less protected by the relaxation of even the fairly limited control measures that are currently in place,” he said.

He said that the change in rules requiring isolation also opened the door for conflict between schools and parents, where families interpreted symptoms that may or may not be coronavirus “differently from their child’s teachers”.

He said: “Like everyone else, we want to see the back of coronavirus, but this does feel like a headlong rush rather than a sensibly phased approach.

“The goal must be to keep children in the classroom for as much of the time as possible. This plan does not seem to meet that objective and may in fact be counter-productive.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union, NAHT, said that the announcement potentially had “an enormous impact” on schools but that there was now a need for swift, “clear and unambiguous guidance” so that schools and parents understood what to do if a pupil or staff member tested positive for Covid.

“Without that clarity, there is a real risk the government could create a chaotic situation in schools and put school leaders in an impossible position,” he said, adding that schools could not be expected to manage the situation on an individual basis without guidance from public health officials. 

He added: “It is important that parents remember that schools are only finding out about this today, just as they are.

“Like parents, they will have a wide range of questions that they need Government to answer. We ask that parents are patient with schools as it will obviously take some time for them to unpick and implement yet another set of changes.”

Mr Whiteman said it was “crucial” that lateral flow tests remained free for pupils, otherwise the consequences for “disadvantaged pupils, in particular, could be severe”.

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