‘Scrap bubbles to keep pupils in school’ calls over increased isolation

Primary pupils sanitising their hands

Concerns have been raised about too many pupils are having to self-isolate and lose time in school. - Credit: PA

Schools are being urged not to send pupils home if one child tests positive for Covid amid calls for the school "bubble" system to be scrapped on July 19.

Downing Street has said decisions about which pupils should be sent home can be made on a “case-by-case basis” amid growing pressure on ministers with number of pupils sent home to isolate because of possible contact with a Covid-19 case having quadrupled this month.

The latest weekly figures available for Norfolk, for the last week of May, show 34 were absent from school with confirmed Covid and 106 had been sent home suspected of having the virus.

Some 470 were absent because of potential contact in school, twice the number seen a month earlier, and a further 161 because of potential contact outside school.

Children home schooling

There has been a quadrupling of pupils isolating at home from school this month. - Credit: PA

Large bubbles – sometimes numbering more than 200 – being forced to miss out on in-person teaching because of a single Covid case has led to concerns on the impact of pupils and families.

Chris Read, acting headteacher of The Bishop’s CofE Primary Academy in Thetford, said the school had seen positive cases spread between year groups due to siblings mixing at home.  

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“This led to other year groups having to isolate, sometimes because only one child had a confirmed case. Inevitably this is disruptive for families," he said.

Chris Read, acting headteacher of The Bishop’s CofE Primary Academy in Thetford

Chris Read, acting headteacher of The Bishop’s CofE Primary Academy in Thetford. - Credit: DNEAT

Dame Rachel de Souza, the new children’s commissioner for England, and the former head of the Norfolk-based Inspiration Trust, is among those to have urged an end to self-isolation as soon as possible, suggesting that it is bad for young people’s mental health

She said the bubble system was an “absolutely massive” frustration, proving “very, very restrictive” in terms of the numbers forced out of school.

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Almost 50 MPs this week signed a letter to the prime minister saying it is essential that schools "go back to normal" when lockdown is lifted - set for July 19 - even if it is "just for the last few days of term".

Pupil taking a Lateral Flow Test

A pilot scheme in 200 schools has been using daily testing in response to Covid cases, rather than a wider group of pupils having to isolate. - Credit: PA

Boris Johnson said he understood the "frustration" but said a Public Health England review into favouring testing over isolation is still under way.

"They haven't concluded yet so what I want to do is just to be cautious as we go forward to that natural firebreak of the summer holidays when the risk in schools will greatly diminish and just ask people to be a little bit patient," he said.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs he believes pupils "would not be facing" bubble arrangements in September.

"Further steps will be taken to reduce the number of children who have to self-isolate including looking at the outcomes of a daily contact testing trial as we consider a new model for keeping children in schools and colleges," he said.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said pupils "would not be facing" bubble arrangements in September. - Credit: PA

With just nine weeks until term begins for most pupils in September, former local head Geoff Barton, now general secretary of the ASCL headteacher union, said the government needed to “act now” to give schools time to prepare.

“Identifying close contacts and asking them to self-isolate is an incredibly time-consuming process for schools and colleges, and involves yet more educational disruption for the young people concerned,” he said.

“It is clear that a different approach is needed in the autumn term but what we have heard so far from the government amounts to no more than vague aspirations and there is still no robust and coherent plan in place.”

Oliver Burwood, chief executive officer of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust (DNEAT), which runs 36 schools, said: “We welcome any move that enables children to be in school learning where they belong, but with safety remaining as our top priority. 

Oliver Burwood, chief executive officer of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust.

Oliver Burwood, chief executive officer of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust. - Credit: DNEAT

“Although we need to see the details of proposals, if a safe environment can be created, perhaps with additional testing, then we'd support the removal of any unnecessary restriction such as self isolation which is in itself damaging to children's wellbeing.”

‘A sledgehammer to crack a nut’

Parents have expressed frustration over children being told to isolate and the impact of education and wellbeing. 

One father, whose son recently had to self-isolate after a ‘close contact’ at his school tested positive, said: “I do get that it’s important to stop the spread of the virus and we’ve been extremely careful when it comes to that, not least because my father is vulnerable.

“But my son and his whole year was recently back at home self isolating again for another 10 days, after the school told us he had come into contact with somebody who had tested positive.

Pupil using hand sanitiser in classroom

Large bubbles – sometimes numbering more than 200 pupils – are being told to isolate because of a single Covid case. - Credit: PA

“My son could not leave the house, but my wife and I could. It was difficult to make sense of it all. I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t be tested and returned to school if he had a negative result.

“It felt like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“I don’t think that’s the school’s fault - they’re only following the rules, but I think they need to be changed now.”

Asked on the EDP Facebook page whether isolating had impacted on children’s mental health, Nicola Austin said: “Yes, massively. Ours are on their second isolation in two weeks. They've only had five days at school between them.”

Classroom being disinfected.

The government is being urged to produce a plan to give schools time to adapt before the start of the autumn term. - Credit: PA

Ruth Spencer, whose son has also isolated twice, said: “It’s been upsetting for him and very disruptive for the whole family. 

“We’re supportive of the school and following the rules, but it’s got to the point where it now seems an overreaction for every positive case.”

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