Union says there appears to be ‘rise in school bubbles told to self-isolate’ amid surge in Indian variant

The number of school “bubbles” – groups that pupils stay in to minimise contact – having to self-isolate appears to be on the rise, according to an education union.

It comes amid concern over a new variant first detected in India which is spreading across the UK.

Earlier this week, education unions called for more data to be released on this variant in schools, as figures showed thousands more children were having to self-isolate.

The leader of one of these unions, Paul Whiteman, told The Independent: “We are certainly picking up more reports of schools having to close multiple classes or ‘bubbles’.”

The general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT said: “ Unsurprisingly, this issue seems to be particularly acute in areas with higher case numbers linked to the new variants of concern.”

The so-called Indian variant is thought to be spreading rapidly among unvaccinated people in areas such as Bolton, Blackburn and parts of London.

A top health official said on Wednesday many of its outbreaks were centred on “focal points” such as schools, while Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, said this Covid-19 variant is behind up to three quarters of new cases.

Earlier this week, government data estimated around 4,000 pupils in secondary schools were not in attendance last Thursday due to a positive Covid-19 test – up from 3,000 the week before.

The number of students thought to be self-isolating due to potential contact with a Covid-19 case jumped from 65,000 on 12 May to 88,000 on 20 May, according to figures.

Allen Tsui told The Independent his child’s school got in contact last week to say his son had to self-isolate. He said finding this out all of a sudden was “very disruptive” but added that it “really can’t be helped”.

Mr Whiteman from the NAHT told The Independent it was more likely for “bubbles” of pupils to get sent home rather than for schools to fully close to pupils.

“The current government guidance means that whole-school closures remain a last resort, and formal restrictions on attendance in geographical areas require ministerial sign-off,” he said.

“As a result, we are not seeing widespread whole-school closures at this stage, but we are certainly getting a sense that there is a rise in bubbles being told to self-isolate.”

Even so, some schools have decided to stop all pupils coming onsite this week.

Hasilngden High School and Sixth Form in Lancashire reverted to remote learning, with the headteacher saying the school had seen the number of positive cases “increase considerably”.

Also in Lancashire, Tonacliffe Primary School closed in the final days before half term due to a Covid-19 outbreak and resulting staff shortages.

Bedford Academy moved to online learning only this week, saying both Bedford and the wider school community had experienced “a significant number of cases of Covid-19”.

“Despite continuing with stringest cleaning procedures, the extended use of facemasks regardless of national guidance, and ongoing education regarding hygiene wih the students and staff, we have been unable to control the rapid spread of the virus,” the headteacher said in a letter.

In Middlesbrough, The Kings Academy switched to online learning for the final days before the half term break after a “small number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 across a range of year groups”.

Earlier this week, education unions called for the government to immediately publish data on the number of Covid-19 variant cases linked to schools and colleges.

Their joint letter to Gavin Williamson highlights “growing concerns” about the Indian coronavirus variant amid reports that cases are growing fastest amongst pupils in areas like Bolton.

A Department for Education spokesperson said this week the number of Covid outbreaks in school and education settings remained “stable” at around the same level as the previous two months.

The department is “looking at ways to publish further data”, they added.

Additional reporting by Press Association


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