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7 July 2021updated 28 Aug 2021 7:46pm

Will chaos in English schools really end with the Covid-19 bubble system?

The self-isolation of pupil bubbles will end on 19 July – but it is unclear whether its replacement will be enough to keep children in classrooms.

By Anoosh Chakelian

As the end of Covid-19 restrictions in England approaches, the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced an alternative system for dealing with positive cases in English schools.

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Instead of sending close contacts of infected pupils home to self-isolate for ten days, secondary schools should offer pupils two Covid-19 tests at the beginning of the autumn term as a one-off – and then the NHS Test and Trace system will take over. This is expected to kick in on 19 July, when other Covid-19 measures are due to be dropped (though most schools will be about to break up for the summer holidays by then).

Face masks, social distancing, and staggered start and finish times will be scrapped from September.

The current system, of sending close contacts of infected pupils home to self-isolate for ten days, is disruptive: absences quadrupled during June. Entire schools in England have even had to close down for ten-day periods, as the New Statesman reported last week.

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Chart by Nicu Calcea.

The latest figures show a record high of 641,000 pupils were off on 1 July due to Covid-19, 28,000 of whom were a confirmed case.

“There have been periods where there have been more pupils self-isolating than actually in school – so over half the school population,” says Stephen Brierley, principal of St Margaret’s Church of England Academy secondary school in Liverpool.

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The bubble system is “unsustainable”, he says, with fewer than 300 pupils on site out of the entire 1,050 school population a couple of weeks ago. Brierley himself was pinged by the NHS app in June and forced to take ten days away from school – along with his entire senior leadership team, leaving two assistant heads in charge of the school for two weeks. At least 20 staff have had to self-isolate in recent weeks.

On the day we speak, he has had to send 60 year-nine pupils home that morning while they were en route to school because of a positive case in their year. It is “incredibly frustrating” for parents, and pupils are “certainly not learning as much as they would on site”. Staff, too, are stretched in terms of covering classes and supervising pupils receiving remote lessons from teachers having to work from home.

“We’ve been able to keep going and provide a reasonably good education for the students who are in, simply because of the goodwill of the staff, but to be frankly honest, I don’t think you can run a school in the long term on goodwill and a bit of Blitz Spirit,” says Brierley. “I don’t see how we can continue like this – at the moment, we are just sort of clawing our way through to the end of term.”

For days, the government has been hinting at an alternative system for the next school year. On 29 June the school standards minister Nick Gibb suggested daily contact testing could be an “effective alternative” to the self-isolation system.

In March and April trials of this idea began in around 200 schools and colleges across England. Instead of the current policy of quarantining contacts of positive cases for ten days, the trial tested each close contact of a positive case on site for seven days. These were lateral flow tests, with a PCR test on day two and day seven.

As late as last week, there was a belief in government that the potential benefit of this alternative system would be to maximise attendance – avoiding so many students and staff being away from the classroom, which disrupts learning, and has a knock-on effect on parents in terms of childcare pressures and lost earnings.

The New Statesman understands the plan would have been to combine this system with regular twice-weekly asymptomatic testing for it to be as safe as possible.

Those plans appear to have been abandoned in favour of NHS Test and Trace – which functions as a contact tracing and testing service in society in general – shouldering the work in schools too.

It was also announced by the Health Secretary Sajid Javid that from 16 August under-18s would not have to isolate unless they themselves had tested positive for Covid-19.

While this new system superficially removes the burden on schools to contact trace or deliver daily testing, it could still be disruptive if it ends up with more pupils actually catching the virus. Infected pupils will still have to self-isolate, after all.

It “may well accelerate the spread of the virus in schools and cause even higher levels of disruption for pupils and teachers”, warned Patrick Roach, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Women Teachers.

Schools have “so far been the most effective part of the test, track and trace system”, according to the NEU teaching union, which expresses concerns about “how effective a public test track and trace system will be and how much it will control cases in schools”.

While the end of the “bubble” process has been welcomed, head teachers such as Stephen Brierley lack faith in the government’s willingness to help schools through the pandemic.

Less than 10 per cent of the recommended education catch-up funding has been committed by the government (£1.4bn instead of the £15bn suggested by its adviser, Kevan Collins, who resigned over the decision). On top of this, teachers also face a pay freeze.

“The disruption we’ve seen to hundreds of students is immense, so I certainly would be in favour of safely changing the system so that fewer students’ education was disrupted,” says Brierley. “However, we’ve seen that the government’s purse strings as far as education is concerned are pretty tightly closed.

“I think the conclusion we can draw is that funding for education is not flavour of the day, regrettably, and as a consequence, I very much doubt that there’ll be any extra funding to support testing in schools meaningfully.”

He adds: “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.” Whether a couple of start-of-term tests and the NHS Test and Trace system will provide those tools has yet to be seen.