Home > News > Return to school in September – on a knife-edge

At the beginning of July, the Department for Education issued a wealth of guidance for schools and educational settings on areas as diverse as hygiene measures and the provision of covered bins for disposable face coverings to staggering start times in order to cater both for movement into and around the school as well as managing the demands of public transport, particularly buses.

The key messages are:

  • Education is not optional and children must attend. The circumstances in which non-attendance may be acceptable have greatly reduced;
  • Detailed hygiene measures are laid down and schools must actively engage with NHS Test and Trace.
  • Schools must try to minimise movement around the buildings and stagger breaks / start times etc.

The demands being made on educational provision is enormous and raise a myriad of issues which are for another day. The point of this post is to demonstrate how potentially precarious return to school is, by applying the guidance to the made-up characters of Alfie and Susie.

Alfie aged 12 is in secondary school. His sister Susie is 8 and is at a local primary school. He travels to school by public transport (bus) which takes about 30 minutes. He is in a year group of 120 children but his school bubble is 30 children. His best friend Jake is in his school bubble. Susie goes to breakfast club having been dropped off by her dad on his way to work. Both parents work.

On Wed 9 September, Alfie develops a cough and feels under the weather.

-> Alfie should stay at home and his parents must report the reason for his absence to the school and book a covid test.
-> Susie and parents must start self-isolating on 9 September.

Alfie has a test on 10 September.

Alfie gets the result on Friday 11 September.

[so this is assuming some speed and efficiency on testing]

If the test comes back negative:

-> members of Alfie’s household can stop self-isolating: i.e. parents can go back to work on Monday 14 September (unless one is required to look after sick child obviously).
-> if Alfie feels well and no longer has “symptoms similar to coronavirus (COVID-19), they can stop self-isolating. They could still have another virus, such as a cold or flu – in which case it is still best to avoid contact with other people until they are better.”

If the test comes back positive:

-> Alfie’s parents must inform the school immediately and the school must contact the local health protection team.
->Alfie must follow the ‘stay at home: guidance for households with possible or confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) infection’ and must continue to self-isolate for at least 7 days from the onset of his symptoms and then return to school only if he does not have symptoms other than cough or loss of sense of smell/taste. This is because a cough or anosmia can last for several weeks once the infection has gone.
-> Alfie’s parents and sister must self-isolate for the full 14 days – i.e. stay at home until Wednesday 25 September. The same is also true of all of Alfie’s ‘close contacts’.
-> Alfie’s parents and the school must be ready and willing to “provide details of anyone [Alfie has] been in close contact with”.

Close contact is defined as:

  • “direct close contacts – face to face contact with an infected individual for any length of time, within 1 metre, including being coughed on, a face to face conversation, or unprotected physical contact (skin-to-skin)
  • proximity contacts – extended close contact (within 1 to 2 metres for more than 15 minutes) with an infected individual
  • travelling in a small vehicle, like a car, with an infected person.”

Insofar as school contacts are concerned, the schools are required to keep a record of pupils and staff in each group (or bubble) and “any close contact that takes place between children and staff in different groups” though the record keeping should try to remain proportionate.

-> All students and staff (and others) who have been in close contact with Alfie, must be sent home to self isolate for 14 days: “Based on the advice from the health protection team, schools must send home those people who have been in close contact with the person who has tested positive, advising them to self-isolate for 14 days since they were last in close contact with that person when they were infectious.”
-> “when they were infectious” i.e. anyone in close contact with Alfie from which date? Apparently the health protection team will provide “definitive advice” on who must be sent home but let’s assume that it relates to anyone in his bubble from Monday 7 September. So, included in that group is his best friend Jake.
-> Unclear how bus contacts are going to be revealed which, on the face of it, would involve close contact (even assuming everyone was wearing a mask as required).
-> But household members of people Alfie has been in close contact with DO NOT need to self-isolate unless the child, young person or staff member who is self-isolating subsequently develops symptoms. So Jake’s parents do not need to self-isolate (though one may need to stay at home to care for him or support any remote learning). Susie’s close contacts including her year group/school bubble also do not need to self isolate at this stage, unless Susie herself then develops symptoms in which case:

  • Susie must have a test, and if positive:
    • Susie must follow the stay at home guidance etc
    • Susie’s parents must start their 14 day self-isolation again, from the onset of her symptom;
    • Susie’s school will have to follow the same protocol as Alfie’s school, with everyone being sent home for 14 days (depending on timings as this only applies to close contacts whilst she was infectious).
    • And of course, even if Susie did not in fact infect anyone, that is x number of children sent home, who, by definition, are too young to be left on their own self isolating, so that means at least one parent of each of her classmates will have to remain at home for 14 days to care for the child in Susie’s close contact bubble.

In addition, “if schools have two or more confirmed cases within 14 days, or an overall rise in sickness absence where coronavirus (COVID-19) is suspected, they may have an outbreak, and must continue to work with their local health protection team who will be able to advise if additional action is required.” Additional action includes sending a wider group home or closing the school.

This example demonstrates how the system is balanced on a knife-edge. Society and parents and carers in particular, must maintain and model the hand-washing, sneeze catching, mask wearing message in order to maximise the prospects of the nation’s children getting an education after the last 6 months of ‘remote provision’ which has been patchy for many to say the least. We really are ‘all in this together’.

Samantha Broadfoot QC
Landmark Chambers
20 July 2020

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