Planning for outbreaks

The Department for Education (DfE)’s Covid-19 operational guidance for schools sets out that employers must regularly review and update their risk assessments and control measures as circumstances and public health advice change and have active arrangements in place to monitor whether they are effective and working as planned.

These include having a contingency or outbreak management plan in place that details the steps to be taken in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak. This requirement is in addition to the measures that all settings should have in place to manage the transmission of Covid-19 day-to-day.

The DfE’s contingency framework gives further advice on contingency planning, including on thresholds for seeking advice and considering action, and on the types of measures that might be taken, who should be involved and how decisions should be made. 

When to consider further measures

The DfE’s operational guidance advises in relation to contingency plans that extra measures should only be considered as a last resort and kept to the minimum extent and shortest time possible.

The DfE’s contingency framework advice sets out the thresholds detailed below, which it says ‘can be used by settings as an indication for when to seek public health advice if they are concerned' about outbreaks:

For most education and childcare settings, whichever of these thresholds is reached first:

  • 5 children, pupils, students or staff, who are likely to have mixed closely, test positive for Covid-19 within a 10-day period or
  • 10% of children, pupils, students or staff who are likely to have mixed closely test positive for Covid-19 within a 10-day period

For special schools, residential settings, and settings that operate with 20 or fewer children, pupils, students and staff at any one time:

  • 2 children, pupils, students and staff, who are likely to have mixed closely, test positive for COVID-19 within a 10-day period

The NEU view is that, particularly given the context of the Omicron variant, waiting until these thresholds have been reached before putting in place additional mitigations raises the risk of a larger outbreak which will end up causing more educational disruption.   

As Sir Patrick Vallance has said, “When you make a move, you have to go earlier than you think you want to, you have to go harder than you think you want to”.  

So, the NEU encourages reps and local officers to press schools to seek enhanced safety measures around ventilation, HEPA filters, masks and increased encouragement of lateral flow testing before these levels are reached and whenever members are concerned that transmission is occurring within a school or college. 

The NEU also recommends that reps and members should get hold of a copy of the school’s outbreak management plan before this stage is reached.  Health and safety reps have the right to be consulted on such plans. 

The plan should detail steps to be taken with a single confirmed case and multiple cases.

  • It should not suggest that the DfE thresholds will be rigidly applied.
  • It should of course include measures to address staffing shortages due to positive cases.
  • Action to be taken in response to an increase in cases

Whenever members are concerned about increased cases in a setting, NEU reps or local officers should urge the setting to seek public health advice in line with local arrangements to address concerns about transmission.  Local officers can also raise this at the level of the employer (for example, local authority or MAT).  Enhanced mitigation measures that could be discussed are set out below.

The DfE contingency framework sets out that settings should seek public health advice in any situation where a pupil, student, child or staff member is admitted to hospital with COVID-19.  Hospitalisation could indicate increased severity of illness or a new variant of concern.  They can do this by phoning the DfE helpline (0800 046 8687, option 1), or in line with other local arrangements.  Check that this reporting has taken place.

Enhanced mitigation measures

NEU reps and local officers are advised to argue for the adoption of the following enhanced mitigation measures as appropriate.  Some of them may be recommended by public health teams in any case.  Adopting these measures in the event of an outbreak will help suppress it and prevent future outbreaks.

These measures should already feature in outbreak management plans as potential measures to be taken.  More detail on some of these can be found in the NEU's joint union safety checklist for schools.

  • Take steps to improve ventilation - see the NEU advice on ventilation and temperature
  • Re-introduce face coverings in classrooms and other areas for staff and secondary students (where this is not already in place)
  • Introduce enhanced on-site testing
  • Require staff members and students living with a positive case to isolate at home even if fully vaccinated
  • Reintroduce staggered start and finish times and staggered lunch breaks
  • Discontinue all large group gatherings such as assemblies, and move all parents’ evenings and open evenings on-line
  • Take steps to limit interaction between pupils, for example through the reintroduction of bubbles
  • Prevent unnecessary visitors attending the setting
  • Assess whether hygiene standards are sufficiently robust and implement additional measures

Individual risk assessments for those covered by the NEU advice for medically vulnerable and higher risk groups should be revised, in particular allowing anyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable or to work from home if not already doing so.

Action by public health authorities

The DfE guidance states that where all other risk mitigations have not broken chains of in-school transmission, a director of public health may advise introducing short-term attendance restrictions in a setting, such as sending home a class or year group (as they could any workplace experiencing a serious infectious disease outbreak).  Local officers are urged to raise this with employers and public health teams where they believe it is an appropriate and proportionate response.

Seeking support

Where despite taking these steps, no progress is made and the situation is worsening, reps who haven’t already sought branch support should urgently do so to seek support for a collective response.  Branches can contact their regional/Wales office in respect of approaches to employers and local public health.