Pupils in England ‘should not be sent home if one child in bubble tests positive’

The government is urging schools in England not to send whole bubbles of children home just because one of them has tested positive for Covid-19.

In a move likely to spark confusion among parents, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said decisions about which kids that are identified as close contacts and should be sent home may be made on a “case-by-case basis”.

Pressure is growing on ministers to urgently scrap or change the policy on bubbles for schoolchildren, given the number currently off school is 375,000 – a 400% rise in the last month.

The Guardian revealed on Monday they are planning to overhaul the current system and revert to mass testing in schools to prevent children in large bubbles all being forced to miss out in-person teaching just because of a single Covid case.

But the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, signalled on Wednesday that the change will be unlikely to be introduced before most schools break up for the summer.

He said changes to bubbles would not come into force before the final stage of the government’s roadmap, due to be implemented on 19 July – a matter of days before many schools in England close for the holidays.

There are “still too many children having their education disrupted”, Williamson admitted.

He added that the “new model” for schools and colleges would be informed by the trial in 200 schools that are using testing instead of isolation to try to keep case numbers down in spite of the spread of the more-infectious Delta coronavirus variant.

Labour said there were just nine weeks until term begins for most pupils in September and that schools needed as much time as possible to prepare for any change in restrictions.

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, urged Williamson to “act now” and asked why he was waiting until September to implement the changes when children’s teaching and mental health will continue suffering.

If the changes do come into force on 19 July, then “changing restrictions for five days at the end of term will create more chaos for schools and families”, she added, calling for an end to the “drip-feed of information which is wreaking havoc with children’s educations”.

More clarity is also being requested by Labour on why masks were required in schools six weeks ago but have been scrapped despite the big rise in case rates.

Most local public health directors are understood not to oppose dropping the isolation policy for close contacts – so long as it is replaced by other mitigations to keep children safe.

Johnson’s spokesman sought to clarify the current advice to school, stressing that “it is not a requirement necessarily that whole school bubbles needed to isolate”.

He added: “Obviously the bubble system does make it easy to identify who may need to self isolate, but the amount of people exactly who need to be sent home will depend on a case by case basis.”

Conservative MPs have recently piled pressure on the government to act faster. Robert Halfon, the chair of the Commons education select committee, said: “We are in danger of creating a generation of ghost children, denied a proper chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity.”

He added mobile testing units should be created for schools before September to stop sending large numbers of children home unnecessarily.

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