Easing restrictions in education settings
Education and childcare staff have continued to show resilience and dedication throughout the pandemic. I am extremely grateful for their hard work in ensuring children and young people have been able to continue to learn and access education in a safe way. This has included introducing measures such as on-site testing, keeping children in bubbles and contact tracing.
On 5 July the Prime Minister announced that at Step 4 we will be able to remove swathes of restrictions on daily life, and that after 16 months of sacrifice by those across society, we will return even closer to normality. Having balanced the risks, I am pleased to tell you that key restrictions on education and childcare will come to an end as we move to Step 4. I am writing to update you on what this means for the education and childcare sectors.
Bubbles and contact tracing
Though keeping children and young people in consistent groups was essential to control the spread of the virus when our population was less vaccinated, we recognise that the system of bubbles is causing disruption to education and childcare.
That is why we will be ending bubbles for early years settings, schools, out-of-school settings and Further Education (FE) providers, and transferring contact tracing to the NHS test and trace system, where this is not already the case. Where there are outbreaks, schools, out-of-school settings, and FE providers may be contacted by Test and Trace, and will work with local health teams as they do now.
This means that from Step 4, larger group activities such as sports days and transition days can resume. Removing bubbles allows increased flexibility in curriculum delivery and also means that important routines such as assemblies can resume. Schools and FE providers may of course decide to keep the current arrangement for the last few days of term.
Should Step 4 be taken in July, this also means that bubbles will not need to be used for any summer provision (for example, summer schools, the holiday, activities and food programme or any other holiday clubs) or in education settings from the autumn term.
We need to be prepared for the possibility that in some local areas we may recommend the reintroduction of ‘bubbles’ or other control measures for a temporary period, to reduce mixing between groups. We are therefore asking education institutions and childcare settings to make sure their outbreak management plans cover this possibility. Any recommendation to reintroduce ‘bubbles’ would not be taken lightly and would need to take account of the detrimental impact they can have on the delivery of education.
From 16 August, children and young people will only need to isolate if they have tested positive with Covid-19. In addition, fully vaccinated staff who have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive will be able to remain in the classroom from the Autumn term.
I am also pleased to be able to say there will be no restrictions on in-person teaching and learning in universities, unless students are advised to isolate or impacted by local outbreaks.
Over the summer, both staff and secondary school /college students should continue to test regularly if they are attending settings that remain open, such as summer schools and out of school activities based in school settings. Schools will only provide tests for twice weekly asymptomatic testing for pupils and staff over the summer period if they are attending school settings. However, testing will still be widely available over the summer and kits can be collected either from your local pharmacy or ordered online.
As students will potentially mix with other people during the summer holidays, all secondary school and college students should receive 2 on-site lateral flow device tests, 3 to 5 days apart, on their return in the autumn term. Students should then continue to test twice weekly at home until the end of September, when this will be reviewed. Staff should undertake twice weekly home tests until the end of September, when this will also be reviewed.
There is no need for primary age pupils (those in year 6 and below) to test over the summer period. They will be offered the 2 tests at an Assisted Testing Site at the beginning of the autumn term when they start at their secondary school as a new year 7. Schools may choose, however, to start testing year 6 pupils earlier, including in summer schools, depending on their local circumstances.
From 17 May, in line with Step 3 of the roadmap, face coverings were no longer recommended for pupils and students in classrooms or communal areas, in all schools and FE providers.
From Step 4, face coverings will also no longer be advised for staff and visitors in communal areas and social distancing will no longer be necessary.
Education and childcare has been a key priority for this government during the COVID-19 pandemic, from providing high-quality remote education during periods of national lockdown to prioritising the wider reopening of schools, out-of-school settings, wraparound childcare and FE providers as part of the first step in the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.
Now, as we emerge from this pandemic, our focus continues to be on young people of our country and ensuring no child is left behind with their learning. Further detailed guidance has been published to enable schools and FE providers to plan for how they will operate from September and for out-of-school settings to help them plan for how they will operate over the summer.