In an attempt to limit the spread of the new Omicron variant, the Department for Education has updated its Schools COVID-19 Operational Guidance.
The new measures put in place are described as precautionary, while the variant is tracked and assessed, in order to reduce the disruption to children and young people’s education. The guidance emphasises the priority on educational settings to keep delivering face-to-face education to all pupils.
The updated guidance is applicable to primary schools, secondary schools (including sixth forms), special schools, special post-16 providers and alternative provision, 16 to 19 academies, infant, junior, middle, upper schools and boarding schools, with independent schools expected to also follow the control measures.
Separate guidance is available for other providers, including further education colleges.
We list the main changes below.
Whilst not a legal requirement, the updated guidance recommends face coverings, as a temporary measure, for all staff and visitors in corridors and communal areas in all schools, and for pupils from year 7 onwards, unless they are exempt.
These pupils should also wear a face covering when travelling on public transport and dedicated transport to and from school. Face coverings are not advised in classrooms or outdoors.
The advice remains that children in primary schools should not be asked to wear face coverings.
Schools are recommended to have a small contingency supply of face masks available. A face visor, or shield, may be worn but only in addition to a face covering, not instead of one.
More detail on circumstances where people are not able to wear a facemask, the use of transparent face coverings, as well as guidance on safe wearing and removal of face coverings is available in the DfE guidance.
Schools are not expected to undertake contact tracing. Close contacts in schools are identified by NHS Test and Trace.
All individuals who have been identified as a close contact of a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, irrespective of vaccination status and age, will be contacted directly and required to self-isolate immediately and asked to book a PCR test. They will be informed by the local health protection team or NHS Test and Trace if they fall into this category and provided details about self-isolation.
Further actions for educational settings may be advised by a local Incident Management Team (IMT) investigating a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
For everyone else, isolation rules are unchanged. Individuals are not required to self-isolate if they live in the same household as someone with COVID-19 who is not a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant, or are a close contact of someone with COVID-19 who is not a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant, and any of the following apply:
- they are fully vaccinated
- they are below the age of 18 years and 6 months
- they have taken part in or are currently part of an approved COVID-19 vaccine trial
- they are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons
Instead, they will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test.
Staff who do not need to isolate, and children and young people aged under 18 years 6 months who usually attend school, and have been identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19 who is not a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant, should continue to attend school as normal.
18-year-olds will be treated in the same way as children until 6 months after their 18th birthday, to allow them the opportunity to get fully vaccinated. At which point, they will be subject to the same rules as adults and so if they choose not to get vaccinated, they will need to self-isolate if identified as a close contact. Schools will continue to have a role in working with health protection teams in the case of a local outbreak.
The guidance recommends considering the impact of any planned international educational visits, with the risk of disruption to education resulting from the need to isolate and to get a PCR test by day two after arrival back into the UK.
Schools should refer to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice and the guidance on international travel before booking and travelling and ensure that bookings have adequate financial protection in place.
All educational visits should involve full and thorough risk assessments and any public health advice, such as hygiene and ventilation requirements, should be included as part of that risk assessment.
Parents travelling abroad over the Christmas holidays are also encouraged to consider the potential impact on their child’s education, with any requirement to quarantine or isolate on their return.
The updates to DfE guidance are described as ‘temporary measures’, and an update is expected before the end of term. The emphasis is on keeping educational settings open and delivering face-to-face education and activities to all pupils as far as possible and without the need for re-introducing groups or ‘bubbles’. Whilst guidance is always subject to change, the current stance is that Christmas events such as nativities should continue as usual.
Ofsted will continue to carry out inspections as usual. The main exception is secondary schools during the first week of January, as these schools have been asked to prepare to run Covid testing onsite for pupils on their return from the school holidays.