On 22 February 2021, my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister, confirmed that, based on the Government’s assessment of the current data against its 4 tests for relaxing restrictions, it will be possible for children to return to schools from 8 March 2021. The latest data suggests that COVID-19 infection rates have fallen across all ages, including in children and young people.
Schools should continue to implement the system of controls. These are the measures that schools have been using since the start of the autumn term. We have strengthened the system of controls in secondary schools by recommending that staff and pupils wear face coverings anywhere in the school where social distancing is not possible. More information is available here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/964351/Schools_coronavirus_operational_guidance.pdf.
Our programme of rapid COVID-19 testing is going to continue to be an important part of how we keep COVID-19 infection rates down within schools and across the wider community. Since January 2021, we have been delivering rapid testing kits to secondary schools and colleges to help identify pupils or staff who are infected with COVID-19 but may not yet show any symptoms. Pupils returning to secondary schools from 8 March will be strongly encouraged to take a rapid test for COVID-19 before their face-to-face teaching re-starts. Staff in both primary and secondary schools are now also going to be able to be tested twice a week, whether they are showing COVID-19 symptoms or not. This means that we can ask those with positive results to self-isolate and further reduce the spread of the virus.
In the event that COVID-19 restrictions in schools are needed to help contain the spread of the virus, the Government may ask schools to change how they are delivering education for a short period of time. To assist with this, on 22 February, we published a revised contingency framework, which outlines how schools should operate in the event of any restrictions. The contingency framework is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-contingency-framework-for-education-and-childcare-settings/contingency-framework-education-and-childcare-settings-excluding-universities#contingency-framework-principles.
The contingency framework is different from the processes for managing COVID-19 cases or outbreaks in individual schools and the process for alleviating operational challenges including staff shortages. Existing processes and roles for school leaders and Directors of Public Health in addressing those issues are unchanged.
Any decision that attendance at education or childcare settings should be restricted will not be taken lightly. The Department will work with other Government Departments, the Chief Medical Officer, the Joint Biosecurity Centre, Public Health England, the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS Test and Trace and relevant local authorities to ensure the decision is informed by the available evidence and recent data. These will be ministerial decisions made on an area-by-area basis in the light of all available evidence, public health advice and local and national circumstances.