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New guidance on self-isolation and reducing the spread of COVID-19: implications for the education sector

COVID-19 continues to cause widespread disruption across schools and colleges. Leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to cover staff shortages due to illness and self-isolation. And, despite the fact that around 1 in 13 people are currently estimated to have COVID-19, universal free testing has ended in England. Anyone who has symptoms and wants a test will have to pay for it unless they have a weakened immune system, work in the health and social care sector or are in hospital. Single tests cost around £2.00 and can be purchased online and in pharmacies.

Asymptomatic testing has been abandoned altogether for most of the population. In the context of schools and colleges, that includes children with SEND

Although the Department for Education haven't made a public announcement, they appear to have issued briefings to schools and colleges advising them 'not to hand out any test kits to staff, pupils or students unless advised by [their] local health protection team, local authority or director of public health'. Even more bizarrely they appear to anticipate that some stock will go out of date and provide information about how to dispose of it. If twitter is anything to go by, many schools and colleges are ignoring that advice and are giving out tests to staff and students in an attempt to keep their classrooms open in the run up to Easter.

Advice to adults and children with COVID-19 symptoms

The government appears to have accepted that very few people will continue to test and is advising 'anyone with symptoms of a respiratory infection, including COVID-19, and a high temperature or who feel unwell, to try stay at home and avoid contact with other people, until they feel well enough to resume normal activities and they no longer have a high temperature'. 

Anyone who tests positive is advised 'to try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days, which is when they are most infectious'.

But, the advice is different for children under the age of 18. If they test positive, the advice is to 'try and stay at home for three days'.

Education specific advice has been withdrawn

The actions for schools and colleges to take during the coronavirus outbreak has been withdrawn. Instead, schools and colleges are expected to comply with new generic guidance on reducing the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID-19, in the workplace. This treats COVID-19 in the same way as colds and flu and provides the following advice:

1. Know which symptoms to look out for

The symptoms of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections are 'very similar' and the government acknowledges that it's not possible to tell if someone has COVID-19, flu or another infection based on symptoms now that free testing has ended. 

It has expanded the list of symptoms for COVID-19, flu and common respiratory infections to now include:

  • continuous cough
  • high temperature, fever or chills
  • loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell
  • shortness of breath
  • unexplained tiredness, lack of energy
  • muscle aches or pains that are not due to exercise
  • not wanting to eat or not feeling hungry
  • headache that is unusual or longer lasting than usual
  • sore throat, stuffy or runny nose
  • diarrhoea, feeling sick or being sick

The government is telling schools and colleges what to look out for, but what are they supposed to do with that information? 

Well, the guidance pushes responsibility onto the individual. They are told to follow the guidance for people with symptoms of a respiratory infection such as COVID-19. This recommends that they 'try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people' but only if they have a temperature or otherwise feel unwell. It goes on to say that it's 'particularly important' to avoid contact with people who are at higher risk of becoming seriously unwell if they contract COVID-19. Older people, pregnant women, anyone who is unvaccinated, people of any age whose immune system means they are at higher risk of serious illness and those of any age with certain long-term conditions are all in the high risk category.

Anyone who can't remain at home is advised to wear a well-fitting face covering made with multiple layers or a surgical face mask, avoid crowded places such as public transport, large social gatherings, or anywhere that is enclosed or poorly ventilated and maintain good social hygiene.

2. Conduct risk assessments

Employers are advised that they 'may wish to consider the needs of employees at greater risk from COVID-19'. That's a 'wishy-washy' statement. Although the requirement for every employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their health and safety risk assessment has been removed, you are under a duty to provide a safe workplace and to take steps to ameliorate risk. COVID-19 is rampaging through the population and you must therefore take steps to protect vulnerable staff and any vulnerable people they come into contact with as part of their job. 

3. Take action to reduce the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID-19

In addition to keeping the workplace clean and encouraging employees to get vaccinated, employers are advised to:

a) Let fresh air in

In general, the risk of catching or passing on a respiratory infection is highest when in close contact with someone who is infected, but it's also possible to pass on a respiratory infection between people who do not have close contact, especially if they are in a crowded and/or poorly ventilated space. The risk of airborne transmission is increased when occupants in a space are participating in energetic activity, such as exercising, shouting, singing or talking loudly - activities that happen in classrooms throughout the UK. 

The government wants schools and colleges to be properly ventilated and, earlier this year, announced a scheme to provide 7,000 air purifiers for schools and colleges. That's grossly inadequate. A survey undertaken by NASUWT in January 2022, revealed that these plans would fall thousands short of what is needed to ensure adequate ventilation in every classroom. The government appears to acknowledge this and has advised schools and colleges to pay for air purification systems out of their existing budgets. 

One option is to open windows. But, that's not always possible. FE news surveyed a number of teachers who said that their classrooms had windows that wouldn't open. 

The Health and Safety Executive provides guidance on how to assess and improve ventilation in line with health and safety requirements under Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. Detailed COVID-19 specific guidance for workplaces and public buildings is provided by the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) for those who wish to put additional measures in place.

b) Outbreaks in the workplace

There is no requirement to report workplace outbreaks of respiratory infections to your local public health team. The guide indicates that if you experience high levels of infections within your workplace, you should apply what it says you should already be doing, but this time 'more rigorously'

Where does this leave schools and colleges?

The government doesn't explain what it means when it talks about infectious staff and students 'trying' to stay at home. But you will have to. 

You will need to decide how you are going approach 'living with COVID' for both staff and students. There's lots to think about - particularly for those members of staff who can't work from home. Are you going to ask staff to remain at home and test if they have any cold-like symptoms - and if so, for how long? Who pays for the tests? If you ask staff to remain at home while they are infectious, will you pay them if they are well enough to work and ready and willing to do so? Will you continue to ask your staff to socially distance? Will you ask staff to wear suitable masks if they do come come into work with cold-like symptoms? 

We answered some of those questions here

Once you've decided what approach to take, you will need to clearly explain this to your staff, pupils and their parents and enforce those rules.  

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