Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children's Issues - advice on mitigations in schools following the October holidays

Advice from the group on baseline COVID-19 mitigations in place within schools after the 2021 October holidays.

Published:
21 Oct 2021
Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children's Issues - advice on mitigations in schools following the October holidays

Mitigations in schools following the October holidays

Key messages

  • children and young people as a group have relatively low risk of direct COVID-19 harm, but relatively high risk of wider – and long-term – social, educational, economic and wellbeing harms. Some of these will be difficult to reverse

  • this advice follows on from the sub-group advice on the return to school in August 2021 which was clear that mitigations should remain in place for no longer than was necessary to ensure safety, based on the state of the epidemic and the latest evidence about risk.
  • summary report of the evidence on children, schools, early learning and childcare settings, and the risk and transmission of COVID-19 was published on 12 August 2021, to support the sub-group’s advice
  • given the continued success of the vaccination in weakening the link between cases and severe harm, the high vaccination uptake across the population, and the current programme to vaccinate 12-17 year olds, as well as the ongoing decline in case rates, the sub-group believes that the time is right to more closely align the mitigations that apply in schools with equivalent requirements in other parts of society
  • as soon as is possible after the October school holidays, the following changes should be made to the current mitigations in schools:
    • face coverings should no longer be required in classrooms for secondary learners
    • assemblies and other gatherings of learners and staff (including those for the purpose of religious observance) may take place if necessary. Face coverings will be required in some circumstances
    • in-person multi-class and multi-year group parents’ evenings may take place as required – although schools that have successfully used digital approaches for parents’ evenings may continue to do so, based on the particular needs of each school
    • one way systems may be removed
    • staggered lunch and break times are no longer required
    • staggered pick-up and drop-off times are no longer required
  • in line with these changes, ongoing emphasis should be placed on the remaining mitigations. In particular the importance of measures to increase ventilation and the continued need for asymptomatic testing
  • it will be important to begin to devolve more autonomy and flexibility of decision-making to local authorities and schools. However, in the event of a local outbreak, schools may be expected and supported by their local health protection teams to reintroduce mitigations, such as face coverings

Background

The sub-group advice on the return to school in August 2021, was that mitigations should remain in place for no longer than is necessary based on the state of the epidemic and evidence about risk. There should be a presumption against placing a greater restriction on children and young people than on the rest of society as the vaccination programme progresses.

We advised a precautionary, staged approach to the removal of mitigations. We do not, however, want mitigations to remain in place for any longer than is necessary to ensure safety. It remains important to balance ongoing mitigations in schools with other harms, for example to children and young people’s education and wellbeing.

We recommended, therefore, that to allow time for all staff to have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, and to monitor the impacts of the updated policy on self-isolation in children and young people, the majority of (pre-summer) mitigations should remain in place at the start of term and for a period of up to six weeks (subject to review).

The very high case rates in August and early September demonstrated that a cautious approach to the removal of mitigations has been appropriate, and the sub-group (i) advised that any changes be postponed as a result, and (ii) committed to keeping a close eye on the data over the following weeks before making any further decisions about changes to mitigations in schools. 

At the latest review on 5 October, the data showed that case rates were decreasing across all age groups, the R rate was below 1, 87% of the adult population were now fully vaccinated (92% of teachers) increasing numbers of young people were receiving a first dose of the vaccine and, for priority groups, a second dose. Given the evidence on the state of the epidemic, and the effectiveness of the vaccination programme, the sub-group felt it was appropriate at this time to remove some of the mitigations in schools, particularly those that have an impact on the wellbeing of children and young people, and move to a set of mitigations that would remain appropriate for the longer term.

The planned changes to the mitigations mean there should no longer be a requirement for young people in secondary schools to wear face coverings in class although they (and staff in primary and secondary schools and ELC settings) would still be required to wear face coverings when in communal areas or when moving around the building. Staff should also continue to maintain at least 1 metre physical distancing from other adults (and between adults and school aged children and young people wherever possible) in line with the requirements for other workplaces

Restrictions on assemblies (including those for religious observance purposes) should be removed, with the understanding that there remains an associated risk of gathering together in large groups. Schools should, therefore, consider the numbers that can be safely accommodated for the purpose of assemblies within the school estate. Face coverings should continue to be worn by secondary aged pupils in assemblies as this would constitute a communal area of the school.

In line with these changes, ongoing emphasis should be placed on the remaining mitigations. In particular the importance of measures to increase ventilation and the continued need for asymptomatic testing, including regular (twice-weekly) asymptomatic LFD testing for children and young people in secondary schools and for school and ELC staff.

Once local authorities have completed the current programme to assess the ventilation in every learning, teaching and play space using CO2 monitors and (where CO2 monitoring was not appropriate) airflow digital modelling, consideration should be given to what will be required to ensure adequate ventilation in those areas where problems have been identified.

The safety and wellbeing of the whole school community is enhanced by the application of appropriate mitigations which are commensurate with the level of risk within the school environment. The mitigations that the sub-group advises should remain in place in schools for a longer period are:

  • children, young people and staff should stay at home and self-isolate if they:
    • have symptoms of COVID-19, whether they feel unwell or not
    • have tested positive, even if asymptomatic
    • are required to self-isolate for travel-related reasons
  • good hand hygiene and surface cleaning in school environments and on dedicated school transport
  • physical distancing will not be required among learners, but staff should continue to maintain at least 1 metre physical distancing from other adults (and between adults and school aged children and young people wherever possible) in line with the requirements for other workplaces
  • an ongoing focus on the importance of good ventilation and the potential for CO2 monitors to be utilised to ensure good air quality in enclosed spaces
  • requirement for face coverings in certain parts of the school, e.g. for adults and secondary age learners when in communal areas or moving around the building, in line with equivalent guidance for hospitality settings
  • requirement to wear face coverings on dedicated school transport in line with the position on public transport
  • ongoing need for outbreak management capability, including active surveillance
  • assessments on the use of PPE should continue to be undertaken for those who work in close contact with children and young people
  • asymptomatic testing for children and young people in secondary schools and for school and ELC staff

The sub-group will keep the asymptomatic testing programme, and all the changes to mitigations, under close review to ensure they remain appropriate in light of vaccination levels and prevalence of the virus.

The sub-group also recommended that any revised guidance to schools should start to move away from the prescriptive approach that was necessary during the height of the pandemic. It will be important to begin to devolve more autonomy and flexibility of decision-making to local authorities and schools. Within this, the sub-group recognises the critical role of Directors of Public Health and local health protection teams in working with local authorities and schools/ELC staff in managing any future significant outbreaks in schools if there are associated concerns about emerging health impacts on school communities or on the wider community.

The advice above will also apply, where relevant, to ELC settings.

Addendum

The Chief Medical Officer has reviewed this advice along with a selection of other relevant data. He welcomes the ongoing detailed and informed consideration from the Advisory Sub Group and is in agreement with the principles within the note, He is of the view that waiting for a further short period of time before moving to implementation would allow a more cautious and sustainable approach. In particular, he has reviewed the most recent data and he is concerned that current rates in children and young people remain relatively high and that, in the intervening period, the sharp decline in case rates that the subgroup observed has showed signs of levelling off in some age groups. He has highlighted that a short pause would enable a greater proportion of young people to become protected after immunity develops in the period after vaccination.

October 2021