Schools are imposing their own stricter versions of the government’s test and trace system, as one education leader warned transmission is “higher than last year”.
Headteachers in England told The Independent they were going beyond national guidance to limit outbreaks and prevent potentially positive children from being in school.
Under-18s no longer have to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone with Covid, with the rules changing in August. They are still advised to take a PCR test but no longer have to stay at home until they get their result.
While schools in England used to do their own contact tracing, this has now been taken over by NHS Test and Trace, who follow this system. However, some headteachers are following their own stricter contact tracing rules.
“We have found the PCR turnaround to be slow, and schools haven’t been told to ask pupils to self-isolate whilst waiting for a test result. This has meant that we have had Covid case pupils in school, which has led to more infections,” one headteacher, who wished to stay anonymous, told The Independent.
“Therefore, we’ve introduced our own test and trace system, where we identify close contacts of positive cases, and ask those pupils to remain at home, accessing our online provision, until they receive confirmation of a negative PCR test.”
He added: “We felt we had to go beyond the Department for Education (DfE) guidance to limit outbreaks and ensure that our educational provision was not disrupted.”
Kit Andrew, a headteacher who runs a primary school in south London, told The Independent his school were also still choosing to run their own contact tracing system, where children isolate as soon as they are identified as a contact.
“We are following our own risk assessment, not necessarily guidance,” he said.
Mr Andrew said when a child was a very close contact of a positive case, St James the Great school in Croydon was asking parents to get a PCR and keep their child off school under their result comes back negative.
“All parents have so far agreed and it has found two more positive cases who would otherwise be in school,” he told The Independent.
More than 100,000 pupils were off school last week with confirmed or suspected Covid, according to government figures.
Towards end of the last school year, the figure was around 75,000 – although hundreds of thousands of pupils were self-isolating after being identified as a contact.
Julie McCulloch from the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the number of contacts identified through the NHS Test and Trace system “is less than when contact tracing was carried out by schools” and students can keep going to school unless they get a positive PCR test result or develop symptoms.
Government guidance says close contacts are likely to be a “small number” most at-risk of catching Covid and are identified by the positive child or their parent.
But Ms McCulloch said: “This system is less robust than was the case previously and there are concerns that this risks more asymptomatic pupils being in the classroom.”
Andy Byers, a headteacher in Durham, told The Independent his school was grappling with the impact of the change of rules for under-18s since the new term started.
“The lack of self isolation for contacts is significant and means that there is more transmission than last year,” he said. “On Friday we had 29 positive cases. “
The Framwellgate School Durham headteacher added: “Numbers have stabilised a bit but it’s clear that there will be significant disruption throughout the year.”
Ms McCulloch from ASCL said the education union can “understand” why some schools may decide to go one step further than official guidance.
She added: “More than 100,000 pupils were absent from school last week with a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus and the desire to reduce the risk of transmission is not surprising.”
The government says local public health directors may advise schools to “temporarily reintroduce” stricter measures if there is a “substantial increase” in Covid cases in its setting or they are in local areas targeted for extra support.
But headteachers who spoke to The Independent they were using their own test and trace system said it was their own decision – and not on the advice of local public health teams.
“We just want to protect staff from symptomatic cases, keep the schools open and safeguard face-to-face teaching for as long as possible,’ the headteacher who wished to stay anonymous said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The best place for children and young people to be is in school with their teachers and friends, and last week more than 91 per cent were back in the classroom.”
“The measures in place strike a balance between making schools safe with enhanced ventilation, covid testing and vaccinations of older students and staff, and reducing disruption by removing bubbles and face coverings.”
They added: “If there are high covid case rates in a school or college, local directors or public health may advise they reintroduce additional temporary measures such as increased testing or face coverings, but face-to-face education should be prioritised.”
The UK Health Security Agency, which runs NHS Test and Trace, has been approached for comment.