Two major academy chains confirmed they will retain bubbles in most schools despite rule changes meaning they are allowed to scrap the system from Monday. It comes after experts predicted the number of children missing school because of Covid-related reasons could reach the one million mark this week, with teachers having to move entire cohorts online in the final days of the school term.
Responsibility for contact tracing in schools passes to NHS test and trace from Monday, and children no longer have to stay in bubbles.
But, with just days to go before the end of term, a large number of schools have chosen to ignore the rule change and will keep bubbles to protect children.
The Harris Federation, which runs 52 schools in and around London, will keep bubbles for the final days of term, and most primary schools in the Oasis Academy chain will retain them.
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, told the Standard: “Children enjoy routine so to suddenly say to young children of four, five, six, seven or eight, we have operated this way for the last year and a half — which for them is an eternity and all they have ever known — but now it’s completely different, is overwhelming to them.
“If in the last week of term you suddenly say ‘good morning, we are going to change all that’, it can be pretty traumatising for some children.
“In all of our schools we are going to be gentle with this. It could cause anxiety and concern for no reason — just for a couple of days. And by September the situation will have changed again.”
Mr Chalke added that the number of children being sent home to learn online is “concerning”.
Up to 15 per cent of Oasis students are at home, while at Harris Federation schools it is 17 per cent — or 6,290 children. Other schools have closed entirely, with all pupils switched to remote-only lessons. Latest Government figures show almost 840,000 children were out of class for Covid-related reasons and the figure is expected to rise further this week.
Mr Chalke said: “Online learning means no learning for many. Poorer parents have to make a choice between paying for food or for internet connection.
“Kids going home to learn has always been a nonsense — it only works for some. It is a really bad situation.”
Some parents are keeping children at home for the final days of term in a bid to reduce the chance of being told to isolate and potentially ruining summer holidays. Children must still isolate if they come into contact with a positive case until August 16, when rules change again and only children who test positive for Covid will have to isolate.
Dan Moynihan, of the Harris Federation, said this does not appear to be a problem in Harris schools. Currently 17 per cent of pupils are self-isolating at home, mostly because they have come into contact with confirmed cases.
He added: “Of course everyone is looking forward to the summer holidays but, having missed so much time to lockdown and self-isolation over the past two years, teachers and pupils are happy to be in school and enjoying the last few days of term.”
Mr Chalke said poorer families are less likely to have holiday plans and do not need reminding of the value of education. He said: “We work in poor communities and they are not going anywhere. They don’t have weeks booked away in Devon or luxury apartments.
“If you live in a leafy area with a great garden, your parents can work at home and you have a holiday booked then there’s much more incentive to skip the last few days as an insurance policy.
“If you don’t have any of those things and you live on the top floor of a council block that’s damp there is very little incentive to stay at home.”
School leaders have urged the Government for clarity about how the new NHS test and trace system will work, and how young children will be able to identify their own close contacts without the help of their teachers.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the end of the summer term has become “extremely challenging” with large numbers of children self-isolating, escalating Covid rates and complex new guidance.
Many teachers will spend the summer holidays preparing for the A-level and GCSE results — which they graded this year after exams were cancelled — and setting up “field hospitals” ready for Covid testing students in September.
Mr Chalke said: “If there is a lack of clarity from the Government, schools can’t create that clarity. I hope in September things are clearer. It is a chaotic situation, but schools themselves are not chaotic. Teachers have given it absolutely everything this year. This is the final push. They are playing to the final whistle but they are exhausted.”