New Covid isolation rules will continue to cause disruption when schools return
As schools will no longer have to enforce “bubbles” from September, it will make the identification of close contacts amongst pupils almost impossible.
After two academic years that have sent shockwaves across the education system, can we hope for a smooth return to schools for 2021-22, or will our young people face another year of disruption? This question is preoccupying school leaders, parents and pupils as we plan the return to school.
Since the pandemic began, schools have closed for face to face teaching for millions of pupils for 115 days; further disruption has been compounded by children isolating because they have been identified as a close contact or contracted Covid. By the end of the summer term 2021, almost a quarter (23.3 per cent) of children were absent from school.
Our school, Hartford Manor Primary School and Nursery in Cheshire, saw an exponential increase in cases during this time. We experienced more disruption in June and July than we had in the previous 17 months. The more transmissible Delta variant is passing from adults to pupils, pupils to pupils, and pupils to adults at a far greater rate than the original wild type variant and Alpha (Kent) variant.
As the weather becomes colder, working with windows and doors wide open can become challenging
In mid-June, our area of Cheshire West and Chester was identified as an area targeted for enhanced support. Further restrictions limited sports day activities, school trips to London and the Lake District, and some of our year six children had to miss their final days of primary school because of isolation rules for schools. When peak disruption occurred, tens of thousands of spectators were allowed to attend football matches, Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix, which caused frustrations and anxiety for children and parents.
The rules for isolation are changing before schools return. From August 16th, it will no longer be necessary for close contacts who have received a double vaccination or those under 18 to isolate for ten days. Instead, close contacts will be encouraged to take a PCR test. Also, schools will not have to keep children in “bubbles” from September, which should see a return to activities like assemblies, instrument lessons, and mixed-age after school clubs. However, it will make the identification of close contacts amongst school-aged children almost impossible.
If we have a confirmed case in a class, we will encourage parents with a child in the same class to seek a PCR test. Weekly virtual meetings with our parents to explain complex and rapidly changing guidance have been invaluable, and we will continue to schedule regular briefings and question-and-answer sessions.
The potential for further disruption in the autumn term could happen because of an outbreak amongst the staff. Although all staff at our school should be double vaccinated, we will encourage them to practise social distancing and to wear face coverings in communal areas outside of the classrooms. The continuation of well-established mitigations will also include regular hand washing, additional cleaning and encouraging children to follow the “catch it, bin it, kill it” approach.
The final and most important factor to keep infection levels low in our schools is ventilation. We will continue with the practice of recycling the air with cross-ventilation by keeping windows and doors open. However, as the weather becomes colder, working with windows and doors wide open can become challenging.
Last winter, we encouraged staff to practise the German concept of impact ventilation, or Stosslüften, which involves periodically opening windows and doors for at least five minutes to allow the air to circulate.
Most teachers are very good at identifying stale air in their classrooms, but to quantify ventilation levels, we will purchase a portable non-dispersive infrared (NDIR) CO2 monitor to monitor the communal spaces. If we identify areas with CO2 levels above the Health and Safety Executive’s recommended levels, we will look to either reduce occupancy or secure funds to purchase a mechanical HEPA filter.
Living with Covid will continue to present a challenge for our school communities, but the partnership between parents and schools has never been stronger. We are determined to work together to put our children’s well-being, health, and education first.
Simon Kidwell is Principal of Hartford Manor Primary School and Nursery in Cheshire.
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