Teacher Covid guidance issued at 11pm then changed within minutes

The schools fiasco that never ends: Whitehall blame game as vital coronavirus guidance for teachers was issued at 11pm on Friday night – then changed again within minutes

  • Unions reacted with fury over the ‘reprehensible’ timing when advice was issued
  • Mary Bousted from the NEU said document should have been ready ‘months ago’
  • Some sources pointed finger at Health Secretary Matt Hancock over the timing

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was under fresh pressure last night after critical lockdown guidance for schools was issued just before midnight on Friday evening.

Unions reacted with fury over the ‘reprehensible’ timing of the advice, which said that secondary pupils could be kept home on a rota every two weeks in areas that are locked down.

To add to the confusion, the Department for Education amended the guidance shortly after publication to remove a passage that said that if a single case in school is confirmed, an entire year group might be asked to isolate for 14 days.

One teachers’ union, the NAHT, said that issuing the advice at 11pm on a on a Friday evening before a bank holiday was ‘nothing short of reprehensible and demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the wellbeing of school leaders and their teams’. 

Unions reacted with fury over the ‘reprehensible’ timing of the advice, which said that secondary pupils could be kept home on a rota every two weeks in areas that are locked down 

And Mary Bousted, general-secretary of the National Education Union, said that the 23,000-word lockdown guidance document should have been ready ‘months ago’.

Last night a Whitehall blame game broke out over the chaos, with some sources pointing the finger at Health Secretary Matt Hancock for the bizarre timing. 

A source said: ‘It obviously was not our plan to release it then, but Health was involved and it took a long time to clear’.

The row overshadowed an attempt by Mr Williamson today to stabilise the Government’s handling of the issue by writing an open letter to parents. 

Referring to new term ‘nerves’, Mr Williamson – whose Cabinet position is already under threat after the A-level results chaos –said: ‘I would urge you to keep in mind that all four of our country’s chief medical officers, including Chris Whitty, are unanimous in believing the health risk posed by Covid-19 to children is extremely low,’ adding: ‘I want to reassure you that huge lengths have been taken to prepare all our schools for this moment. 

‘If a child is not in school, they stand to lose far more than just a few months of learning. It could well put a huge dent in their future life chances. 

‘Education is a birthright, so let’s make sure we get all children back – back to learning, back to playing and back to being kids again.’

The lockdown advice said that the rota system, with each pupil spending a fortnight at school then a fortnight learning remotely to break the chain of Covid-19 transmission, would only happen after ‘all other measures have been exhausted’ –but that if cases continued to increase, all students might have to move to remote learning apart from those in vulnerable groups or whose parents were key workers.

Mr Williamson said the document was a contingency plan for a ‘worst-case scenario’. 

If there is a local lockdown, the guidance said there would be four stages of response, depending on virus cases in the area: Tier 1 levels of infection would mean all pupils attending school as normal; Tier 2 would mean secondary schools and colleges moving to rotas, with students alternating a fortnight attending and a fortnight at home, and primary schools remain open to all; Tier 3 would see most secondary pupils learning from home; and Tier 4 would see all schools switching to remote learning in the area, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

The guidelines were published as a leaked scientific paper prepared for the Government suggested that as many as 85,000 people could die in the UK in a second wave of coronavirus this winter

If a school confirms a case of coronavirus, health protection teams will advise the school how many pupils need to be sent home to isolate for 14 days. 

Boris Johnson has insisted that failure to reopen schools was ‘not an option’.The Prime Minister has said he would force shops and restaurants to close before schools, which would shut only as a last resort.

The guidelines were published as a leaked scientific paper prepared for the Government suggested that as many as 85,000 people could die in the UK in a second wave of coronavirus this winter. 

The report, by the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) said some lockdown restrictions may have to be reintroduced and kept in place until March 2021. 

If a school confirms a case of coronavirus, health protection teams will advise the school how many pupils need to be sent home to isolate for 14 days 

Research shows the risk to children of becoming severely ill from the virus is very low, and there is no evidence that they transmit the disease any more than adults.

Paul Whiteman, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘You don’t need a crystal ball to see that there will almost inevitably be some disruption in some areas in the coming weeks.’ 

He said heads had been asking for weeks for this ‘Plan B’ for what happens in the event of an outbreak – and ‘another late-night publication is fairly typical of what we’ve become used to’.

His comments were echoed by Geoff Barton, general-secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was under fresh pressure last night after critical lockdown guidance for schools was issued just before midnight on Friday evening

Asked how teachers would respond, he told the BBC: ‘I think, probably, the most polite response is a weary, resigned sense of inevitability that here we are again. 

Right at the last minute, something that we have been accused of expressing treachery in asking for – where’s the Plan B in case of local lockdown – has arrived.’

Professor Carl Heneghan, an Oxford University epidemiologist, said cold and flu cases mean more pupils would have to self-isolate until they are tested. ‘If your child has any symptoms they’re going to have to stay off school.

‘In the past there’s been a tendency to say, “You can have some Calpol, maybe you can go in.” There’s going to have to be a sea-change in how parents behave,’ he said.

Labour education spokeswoman Kate Green said it was ‘unfair’ to school leaders to release the guidelines so close to the start of term.

  • Last night an opinion poll put the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck on 40 per cent each – the first time the Tories have not been ahead since July 2019. The Opinium survey found that 47 per cent of people disapproved of the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis compared to 31 per cent that approve. 
  • The poll also found 63 per cent of parents with school-aged children think it is safe to reopen primary schools, and 60 per cent say the same about secondary schools.

At a glance: What parents need to know 

Schools welcome children back to the classroom in England and Wales full-time this week – but what exactly do parents need to know?

Here, The Mail on Sunday details the very latest Government guidance…

  • Schools are staggering lunch, break and start times and stepping up cleaning, with strict hygiene and cleaning protocols in place.
  • Nearly all have created ‘bubble’ groups of pupils, erected signs to direct pupils and parents around the school, as well as installing extra hand washing and sanitisation stations.
  • A small number of home test kits are being distributed to all schools for anyone who develops symptoms and is not easily able to get tested.
  • In the event of local lockdown restrictions, secondary school pupils and staff will wear face masks in communal areas where they can’t easily socially distance. Face coverings will not be worn in classrooms.
  • Primary school children will not need to wear a face covering.
  • lf a pupil or staff member has a suspected case, classes will continue as normal while the affected person self-isolates and is tested.
  • But if a case is confirmed, health protection teams will advise the school how many pupils need to be sent home to isolate for 14 days and study online depending on the level of contact between the infected person and pupils in their ‘bubble’.
  • In a smaller ‘bubble’, such as a single class, all the pupils might have to be sent home to isolate.
  • For a bigger bubble, such as an entire year group, there is the option to send home all other pupils, but it could be just those who were in close proximity with a pupil with the virus.
  • If there are a significant numbers of infections, a school may as a last resort bring in a rota system. This would involve pupils spending two weeks in the classroom and then two studying remotely.
  • Schools should base their plans on a four-tier system to respond to changing levels of cases. The default setting will be Tier 1, where all pupils attend full-time.
  • If health and education officials decide levels of infection are too high, schools could move to Tier 2, in which secondary pupils would go on to the part-time rota. Tier 3 would see most secondary school pupils study from home. Tier 4 would see all at home, except the children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters.

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