Schools won’t automatically close if there is a coronavirus outbreak, the government has said.
It comes as education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed all schools and colleges will fully reopen in September.
However, teaching experts have raised doubts over the “mind boggling” difficulties of containing outbreaks in schools.
Labour, meanwhile, said it supported the reintroduction of compulsory attendance but that parents should not be fined for refusing to send their children to school amid safety concerns.
Government guidance for reopening schools, which was published on Thursday, said schools “may have an outbreak” if two or more COVID-19 cases are confirmed in the first 14 days.
However, it added that entire school closures “will not generally be necessary” and “should not be considered except on the advice of health protection teams”.
The guidance suggests shutting an entire school would be the third and final option.
If there is an outbreak, a mobile unit may be dispatched to test others who have been in contact with a person who has tested positive.
The government said it would prioritise testing the infected person’s class, “followed by their year group, then the whole setting if necessary”.
A key aspect of the government’s reopening plans is to keep class or year groups in separate “bubbles” in order to prevent the virus spreading.
If one person tests positive, Williamson said small groups of young people and staff could be asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days.
Williamson said: “I want to reassure parents and families that we are doing everything we can to make sure schools, nurseries, colleges and other providers are as safe as possible for children and staff, and will continue to work closely with the country’s best scientific and medical experts to ensure that is the case.”
Safety measures set out in the guidance include:
teachers distancing from each other and older students where possible
increasing the frequency of cleaning
reducing the use of frequently shared items
minimising contact in corridors
However, one teaching union warned the logistics are “mind boggling”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind boggling.
“School leaders will have to consider implementing staggered starts, finishes and lunch times, alongside transport to and from school, on an epic scale.”
Meanwhile Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added the recent outbreak in Leicester “has demonstrated that this crisis is far from over, and there will be further disruption ahead.
“It is therefore essential that government continues to monitor the data when it comes to school return and that it also has a credible plan B in place should it be required.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green also said in the House of Commons: “I support the secretary of state [Williamson] in reintroducing compulsory attendance, but fining poor parents will not serve the best interests of their children.
“Parents need reassurance their children will be safe, especially in communities – and including ethnic minority communities – where the prevalence of COVID is higher.”
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