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School leaders supporting track and trace during the festive holiday

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Context and NAHT’s work to date

School leaders have been asked to play an integral role in the national test and trace system throughout the pandemic. This has involved receiving notifications of positive test results from families and staff members, contacting the Department for Education (DfE) and Public Health England (PHE) for advice, and then having to inform pupils, parents and staff about the need to self-isolate.

This has been a significant undertaking. It has involved working throughout evenings, weekends and during the school holidays. School leaders take their responsibility to keep all members of the school community safe extremely seriously, and they have gone above and beyond to achieve that in these unprecedented times. 

NAHT has been raising our serious concerns about this issue with the DfE for a number of months. We are deeply concerned about the impact this is having on school leaders’ workload and well-being. We have made it clear that this is not a reasonable or sustainable approach. We have also published interim advice for members on this issue. 

NAHT foresaw the issue of the festive holiday following the experience of leaders during the October half-term, and along with colleagues in other education unions, we first raised it with the government at the end of October.  

The issue

The current challenge facing the system is that the guidance says if someone tests positive for coronavirus, those who were in close contact with them 48 hours before the symptoms emerged are likely to need to be told to self-isolate.

In practice, this means that if a school term finishes on a Friday, pupils or staff who develop symptoms up to the Sunday could still have had close contact with others in school within those 48 hours. As it is only schools that hold the information about bubbles and seating plans, PHE is relying on schools and school leaders to provide this. 

The additional challenge is that while the symptoms may develop two days after the end of the term (eg on the Sunday), in many cases it could take people a few additional days to book a test and receive the results. This means that PHE may need information about close contacts into the start of the following week. 

That said, after the initial 48 hours, there should be a significant drop-off in the number of reported positive cases, ie only those families or staff who have had to wait an extra day or two to get a test result. 

It is important to note that the DfE and PHE have already said where a pupil or staff member develops symptoms after the 48 hours, they should not need to contact the school and can use the ‘normal’ national track and trace system. Parents should be informed of this position as soon as possible. 

NAHT’s position

While NAHT recognises the challenge that the above situation creates, we do not believe it is fair to ask school leaders to continue to carry out track and trace duties long into the holiday period. School leaders have worked tirelessly and without a break for months. From a well-being perspective, they need a break. We also believe they have a right to expect a break. We were particularly concerned about stories suggesting school leaders will have to continue to do this work for the whole holiday or up to, and including, 24 December (Christmas Eve). NAHT made it clear to the government that it would be totally unacceptable.

We offered a number of solutions to the government, including the following:

  1. Allowing schools to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term so that the need to track and trace does not continue long into the festive holiday
  2. Allowing schools to use inset days at the end of the term if they have them available
  3. Asking local authorities or local health protection teams to carry out the track and trace work during the holidays based on information the school provides 
  4. As a minimum, if there are any expectations for schools to support with some tracking and tracing for the initial few days, the government should set clear expectations that any track and trace work should be minimal, eg not requiring schools to make phone calls (to use pre-prepared texts and emails instead) and not requiring schools to be ‘on-call’ all day. 

Frustratingly, the government has continued to rule out allowing schools to switch to remote learning for the final week of term.  

We have also been willing to discuss any other potential solutions that the government could suggest. 

The government’s position

On 8 December 2020, the government published its position on this issue.

The government has now accepted that schools that were due to break-up on Friday 18 December can now use an inset day in order to finish on Thursday 17 December, if they want to. Previously, we know schools were being prevented from doing this. The significance of this is that it means no school staff will have to be involved in supporting track and trace on 24 December (Christmas Eve) and that the six-day period will finish on 23 December. After the six days, school leaders can stop checking for notifications from families, and there is no need for schools to be informed about potential pupil absence until the start of the spring term. 

It is our understanding that if schools have no inset days remaining, there may still be some scope to close on 17 December, but schools would be expected to make up for that ‘lost day’ later in the year. If that is the position you find yourself in, we advise speaking with you LA or trust immediately. NAHT is actively seeking clarity on this issue. 

Crucially, following NAHT’s lobbying, the government has also said the following:

  • Schools do not have to be ‘on-call’ all day in the six days following the last day of the term. Instead, they should identify a limited period during the day when they will check for notifications of positive cases. In practice, this could mean checking for voicemails or a dedicated email address once a day, eg at 9am each morning 
  • When notifying families of the need to self-isolate, schools only need to send a prep-prepared email or text message. There is no requirement to make individual phone calls. 
What should I do now?

We know that for many schools taking an inset day as not a realistic possibility, given the timescales involved. However, if you are considering doing so…

  • The first step is to contact your local authority (LA) or trust to check whether they have any plans to alter term dates following the DfE’s announcement
  • You will then want to review whether you now make Friday 18 December an inset day (Nb: for schools that were due to finish after 18 December, the DfE has said: “Schools may wish to consider adjusting term dates to make Friday 18 December the last day of term (which could be an INSET day), and bringing forward the start of term in January by the same number of days.”)
  • If you have no INSET days available but still want to finish on Thursday 17 December, you should contact your LA or Trust to agree a change to term dates. 

     

  • You will also want to determine how the school will cover the six days of monitoring notifications following the last day of term. Key questions include the following:
    • Have we told parents clearly that they only need to contact the school if symptoms emerged within 48 hours of pupils/staff being in school?
    • Does the LA or Trust have any plans in place to support schools already?

    • Have we told parents and staff how and when to contact the school in those six days if they need to? This could be a dedicated inbox or a given phone number that is checked once a day
    • Have we identified who will be responsible for a daily check-in? Can we share this responsibility between different senior leaders?
    • Do we have access to the list of bubbles and seating plans should we need to contact the DfE's helpline?
    • Do we have a pre-prepared email or text message that can be sent if we need to tell staff/families about advice from PHE?
  • NAHT recommends that the message to families makes it clear that the school is simply passing on advice received from PHE and that families are directed to contact regional public health teams if they have any questions about the email/text. 
What is my legal position? Can I refuse to do this?

Following a number of phone calls and emails from members on this subject, we have taken legal advice as to where school leaders stand when it comes to this request.

The advice we have received is given that this will not be a requirement for the whole holiday, any instruction received from an employer to do this is likely to be regarded as reasonable in the unusual circumstances which currently prevail. 

Furthermore, as a result of the changes the government has now made, it is unlikely to amount to a breach of contract for employers to require schools to assist with test and trace after the end of the term.

As such, we do not advise members to refuse to do this.

First published 10 December 2020