The use of “bubbles” in schools and colleges in England will come to an end as the country moves towards the easing of lockdown restrictions, the Education Secretary has confirmed.
Gavin Williamson told MPs that from August 16 children will only need to self-isolate if they have tested positive for Covid-19.
His comments came after Covid-related pupil absence in schools in England hit a new record high since classes fully returned in March.
Around one in 12 (8.5%) state school pupils did not attend class for Covid-19-related reasons on July 1, up from 5.1% on June 24 and 3.3% on June 17, according to Department for Education (DfE) statistics.
More than 640,000 pupils in England were not in school due to Covid-19 last week – up from around 384,000 the week before.
Current rules state that children have to self-isolate for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble – which can be an entire year group at secondary school – tests positive for coronavirus.
But the Education Secretary said it would be up to individual schools as to whether they scrap the bubble system before the summer holidays, following the expected move to Step 4 after July 19.
Updated Department for Education (DfE) guidance says keeping children in consistent bubbles will not be needed for summer provision, or in the autumn.
In addition to ending bubbles, Mr Williamson said it will “not be necessary to stagger start and finish times” at schools.
He told the Commons: “We recognise that the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education. That is why we’ll be ending bubbles and transferring contact tracing to the NHS Test and Trace system for early years settings, schools and colleges.”
Mr Williamson added: “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.”
From July 19, schools will no longer be expected to undertake contact tracing and NHS Test and Trace will instead identify close contacts of positive cases.
Face coverings will also no longer be advised for pupils, staff and visitors, either in classrooms or in communal areas.
But the Education Secretary said “some protective measures” – such as enhanced hygiene and ventilation – will remain in place for the autumn term.
He told MPs: “Secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide two on-site tests to their students at the start of term, with regular home testing continuing until the end of September, when this will be reviewed.”
Education union leaders have criticised the Government’s move to scrap school bubbles on July 19 alongside all legal coronavirus restrictions.
The latest figures show that around 34,000 pupils were absent because they suspected they had Covid-19 on July 1, up from 24,000 on June 24, and 28,000 were off after testing positive for Covid-19, up from 15,000.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “Headteachers will welcome not being responsible for testing of pupils but will share the concerns of the NEU about how effective a public test, track and trace system will be and how much it will control cases in schools. Schools have so far been the most effective part of the test, track and trace system.
“It seems clear that the Government policies are based on a new form of herd immunity strategy – they are hoping that the increase in vaccination rates and the increase in infection rates across the summer will eventually get cases to fall simply because there is no-one left to infect.”
He added: “We can all hope for the best, but we must now plan for something that is less than the best.”
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “No school leader wants to have restrictions in place any longer than are needed, but there will be a sense of real concern amongst many that the worsening situation they see before their eyes is at odds with the Government’s narrative of relaxation and return to normality.
“Schools have seen a near doubling of children contracting Covid-19, with 28,000 confirmed cases reported in the last week alone.
“School leaders and parents alike will want more reassurance than has been given so far that removal of restrictions are supported by scientific evidence, not driven by political convenience.”
But some have supported the planned changes, arguing they would reduce “disruption” of education.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We have to put an end to the educational disruption that has blighted the lives of children and young people during the pandemic, and it simply would not be fair to them to continue with the current controls when the adult population is largely vaccinated.”
He added: “The scrapping of bubbles should remove some of the current barriers to offering children and young people a full timetable of lessons and return school life to something which seems much more normal, and we very much hope that the autumn term and its routines will feel much more settled and familiar.
“But it is important to note that this is not an all-or-nothing situation and a system of controls will remain in place, including the flexibility to reintroduce more stringent measures in the event of local outbreaks of coronavirus. This will be logistically challenging, but seems a prudent and reassuring safeguard.”