School isolation rules in England could be brought to an end this autumn, the Department for Education has confirmed.
There are growing concerns about the rising number of children who have to quarantine because they are the contacts of confirmed cases.
The department said ministers have written to secondary schools asking them to prepare to potentially replace isolation rules with testing.
A spokesman said: “We are provisionally asking secondary schools and colleges to prepare to offer on-site testing when students return for the new academic year, so that schools are ready in case it is needed to keep as many children as possible in face-to-face education.
“We will provide further details about the approach to protective measures and test and trace in education from September in due course.”
On Monday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he has asked for “fresh advice” on the issue, adding that the policy is “having a huge knock-on impact” on children’s education.
“I will hopefully be able to say more on this as soon as possible,” he said.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said the Government is carrying out a review into using testing to end self-isolation for school pupils in bubbles.
“We are conducting trials of daily contact testing as a possible alternative to self-isolation,” he told Sky News on Tuesday, adding that a decision will be taken before July 19.
“What matters also is that we keep the school safe and, if you go around our schools, you will see a raft of measures to reduce the infection rates within schools.
“There’s extra hygiene, there’s staggered breaks, we keep children in bubbles, and there’s extra ventilation in classrooms to minimise the risk of transmission.”
He said that about 3% of students are currently self-isolating, but added that this figure is lower than it was in the autumn.
Bubble arrangements an self-isolation should end soon
Meanwhile, Professor Adam Finn, from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said children “don’t get ill very much when they get this infection so the harm that’s done to them by closing schools or by excluding them from schools far exceeds any harm they get from the virus itself”.
He told LBC radio there needs to be a “balanced response”, adding that “anything that can be done to minimise the disruption to children’s education is a good thing as far as I’m concerned”.
It came as the new Children’s Commissioner for England said bubble arrangements and self-isolation for school pupils should end soon.
Dame Rachel de Souza said there is an urgent need for children to get back to normal as lockdown restrictions have been a “real trauma” for many young people.
Currently children have to self-isolate for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble tests positive for coronavirus.
It has resulted in a sharp rise in pupils off school for Covid-related reasons, with the latest official figures showing 239,000 children in England missing classes – as the numbers trebled in the space of a week.
The latest figures on school attendance will be released by the Department for Education around noon on Tuesday.
Sarah Croft, senior statistician for the Office for National Statistics Covid-19 Infection Survey, told Times Radio on Tuesday that the “main sort of increase seems to be in school year 12 to age 24 – so older teenagers and those in their early 20s.”
She added: “In terms of other age groups, we’re seeing school years 7 to 11, but that has stayed at about 0.3% for several weeks now, we haven’t seen any recent increases there.”
'A big burden'
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Dame Rachel said children needed to get back to normal.
“The experience of lockdown has been a real trauma, and I think we shouldn’t underestimate it,” she said.
“Children are really troubled, and it’s right across the board.”
Dame Rachel said young people, who have seen their normal childhood disrupted in order to protect older people, are now struggling with their mental health.
“They have done a huge amount for us, I mean they really were the least at risk of this and they’ve given up 19 weeks of their education, they’ve had all this anxiety and concern and exams cancelled; they’ve taken a big burden for us,” she said.
The commissioner said that, although adults largely assume “kids are resilient, they’ll bounce back”, the results this year of a sweeping survey on British pupils, dubbed The Big Ask, showed “they are telling us that they have got these worries and we need to listen to them”.
The survey of more than 550,000 children, run by the office of the Children’s Commissioner, showed mental health was the biggest concern for 20% of respondents, a figure that rose to 40% for those aged 14-17, the Telegraph reported.
A former teacher herself, Dame Rachel said she has “real concern” for nursery-aged children and those starting school, who are at an age when they “need to be playing and learning and developing language skills” but have instead been “stuck inside for too long”.