Easing Covid restrictions: What FE providers need to know

The government plans to remove bubbles and social distancing rules in FE providers from July 19, the education secretary confirmed today.

Gavin Williamson told the House of Commons that most Covid-19 restrictions in education settings will be eased under step 4 of lockdown.

Department for Education guidance for colleges and FE providers has also been published outlining the changes.

Here is what Williamson said can be expected.


‘Bubbles’ recommendation to be removed

Under current guidance, FE providers are recommended to reduce the number of contacts between students and staff by keeping groups in separate “bubbles”.

Williamson said this advice will be lifted from July 19.

“Keeping children in consistent groups was essential to control the spread of the virus when our population as less vaccinated, we recognise the system of bubbles and isolation is causing disruption to many children’s education.

“That is why we will be ending bubbles.”

He added that the DfE will also be transferring contact tracing to the NHS test and trace system.


Only Covid-positive children to self-isolate from August 16

Williamson said his department is setting out new rules that mean from August 16, “children will only need to isolate if they have tested positive for Covid-19”.

It is not clear at this stage if this will also apply to adult students in FE providers.

The education secretary said: “In education settings, guidance on isolation of contacts will stay in place until the end of this term, in line with isolation rules for the rest of the population.

“As more adults are vaccinated settings will continue to have a role in working with health protection teams in the case of a local outbreak. Where necessary, some measures may need to be reintroduced from August 16. Those under the age of 18 years old will no longer be required to self-isolate.

“Instead, children will be contacted by test and trace informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test. 18-year-olds will be treated in the same way as children until four months after their 18th birthday to allow them to have the opportunity to get fully vaccinated.”


No staggered start and finish times

In addition to ending bubbles, Williamson said it will “not be necessary” to stagger start and finish times.

“Schools and colleges may of course continue with these measures until the end of the summer term, if they so wish,” he added.


Face coverings and social distancing not needed

Williamson said that some protective measures including enhanced hygiene and ventilation will remain in place for the autumn term.

But from step four face coverings will no longer be advised for pupils, students, staff and visitors, either in classrooms or in communal areas.

Social distancing will also “no longer be necessary”.


Testing to continue in September

As FE Week revealed last week, schools and colleges have been told to prepare for the return of onsite Covid testing from the start of the autumn term.

Williamson confirmed today that secondary schools and colleges will be asked to provide two onsite tests to their students at the start of the new academic year with regular home testing continuing until the end of September.

Education settings still operating over the summer will “continue to test twice a week with asymptomatic test kits still available to families over summer break as well”.


Eligible students and staff encouraged to get vaccinated

Williamson said it is “incredibly important” for all staff and adult students to get vaccinated, and in particular for “all staff to get to the second dose of a vaccine as soon as they are eligible, so they secure the strongest possible protection against Covid-19”.

He added that in line with wider changes to isolation from August 16, if in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, staff will be able to remain in the classroom from the autumn term.

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