Scrutiny of the Regulations
Comments on the Regulations were presented by the Education and Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel. The comments raised concerns about potential confusion for parents over their legal requirements with regard to home-schooling and potential exemptions and considerations given to parents who, for reasons of personal circumstance, were not able to fulfil the expectations to deliver home schooling (e.g. not having sufficient access to online learning resources, or needing to work full-time). The Panel also cited concerns about how online learning would be followed up by schools with students; and questioned how the Minister would seek to minimise learning inequalities that might arise between children of families with access to online resources and those without.
The Panel committed to regular meetings with the Minister for Education to provide ongoing scrutiny of the new Regulations but acknowledged the need for their introduction, given the exceptional circumstances.
Provision of Education for children of Critical Workers and Vulnerable Children during Lockdown
Access to emergency school-based childcare provision was made available for employees in critical services (see Appendix 1). The listed services and organisations were considered essential to provide services critical to the Island during any order to 'stay at home' for the general population, as these services needed to ensure they could operate at minimum levels.
Vulnerable children (identified through having a social worker, being in receipt of a Record of Need (RON), or through the recommendation of relevant professionals) were also supported in schools to undertake the same work that their peers were undertaking at home. Also included in this group were Children Looked After (CLA). These pupils were offered, and their families were encouraged to accept, a place in school.
Special schools remained open throughout the Covid-19 crisis, with staff managing provision for their Special Educational Needs and Disabled (SEN/D) pupils through a combination of physical placements in school (both full-time and part-time), targeted outreach work (where key workers and teachers took pupils out or visited them at home) and individually provisioned home-learning, both online and using physical resources.
Many of these pupil groups (and their teachers and key workers) continued to attend school during the Easter school holiday and during the May half-term break where they followed an activity and enrichment-based experience.
Digital Devices for Home Learning
From the outset of the pandemic, free broadband was offered via telecom providers and Digital Jersey to the homes of school children and care leavers without access. In June 2020, an extra 240 devices were ordered by the Department of Children Young People Education and Skills (CYPES) and around 20 internet devices were donated through a social media scheme.
However, research conducted by CYPES in September 2020 showed that schools did not have enough devices to support pupils with their online learning. In April 2021, a total of £380,000 was secured via a community and Government partnership project to support school students with additional online learning devices. The funding was to provide up to 400 tablets for primary school students, 720 laptops for Year 6 and secondary school students, and 50 4G internet connectors to be used with laptops.
Reopening of Schools after Lockdown
As Jersey entered Level 2 of the Safe Exit Strategy in early June 2020 (and following an initial Children's Rights Impact Assessment (CRIA) in May 2020) all pupils in Year 6 were offered full-time places in their schools. Year 6 was identified as a priority in terms of transition as these pupils would move from primary to secondary school in September 2020.
Following Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell (STAC) advice and a subsequent CRIA, pupils in other year groups were able to return to full-time education from 22nd June 2020. Safety measures included the formation of whole class 'bubbles' and limiting interaction between different 'bubbles'. No physical distancing was required within each bubble at primary school level.
Private nurseries were also allowed to open to a set number of children, and child-minders were permitted to care for small groups.
Pupils in Years 10 and 12 were offered part-time attendance at their secondary schools in mid-June 2020, with school variations in possible attendance depending on staffing and rooming capacity in each school. These year groups were selected to attend first as both would be taking external examinations (GCSEs and A-levels or equivalent) in the next academic year.
Secondary pupils in Years 7, 8, and 9 were also offered part-time attendance, with restricted timetables and days, from 29th June 2020. Due to the need for secondary pupils to be taught in different combinations of subject groups across a day by several different teachers, physical distancing and 'bubbles' presented challenges to controlling interactions between pupil groups. Year group bubbles were identified, and teaching groups maintained a 1 metre physical distance. Thus, class groups could only be between 10 and 15 pupils in number depending on room size, and for many settings it was not possible to offer catering or breakout spaces beyond formal classrooms.
Initially, schools prioritised their exam groups for contact time with staff. Next, they moved to ensure that every year group experienced at least 2-3 days in school before the end of the term.
Tests were automatically booked for the individuals identified. The number of tests booked depended on the date of interaction.
A direct contact, in most instances, was defined as someone spending more than 15 minutes (inside or outside) within 2 metres or less, or having direct physical contact without personal protective equipment, with an individual who was an active positive person. This generally included those people in the child's friendship group, classes and activities.
An indirect contact was defined as anyone who was outside this distance and duration, did not have physical contact or wore suitable personal protective equipment.
Debate on Early Schools Closure at Christmas
In response to rising Covid-19 cases, and large numbers of pupils being required to isolate in early December 2020, Deputy Rob Ward of St. Helier lodged a proposition titled 'School Closures' on 8th December 2020, calling for the Government to close schools 2 weeks early. However, at a requisitioned meeting the Assembly voted against the proposition by 28 votes to 17. Accordingly schools remained open until the end of term and the Minister announced they would reopen a day later than planned on 7th January 2021; although the reopening date was moved to 11th January 2020 in order to roll out a voluntary Covid-19 testing programme for all Government and private school staff, along with students in Years 11, 12 and 13.
Lateral Flow Testing in Schools
In January 2021, the Government announced that every staff member in primary and secondary schools and colleges, as well as students in Years 11 and above, would be offered rapid regular testing (known as Lateral Flow Testing) for Covid-19 on their school premises. The intention behind Lateral Flow Testing was to increase the detection of asymptomatic cases to help keep schools open and children in continuous face-to-face learning.
The Lateral Flow Tests were self-administered under supervision in schools, at a dedicated testing area on-site, and any positive cases had to then self-isolate and take an urgent PCR test. Whilst not mandatory, testing was strongly encouraged. However, staff and students who experienced Covid-19 symptoms had to follow Government guidance as normal, including immediate self-isolation and booking a Covid-19 test. Positive cases found amongst teachers or students required the individual to self-isolate according to the guidelines.
In response to reports that some children and young people found themselves in situations where a private establishment, such as a school, required them to get a Covid-19 test as part of a blanket ruling, regardless of whether or not there was a concrete reason for the test (such as having travelled abroad, for example), the Office of the Children's Commissioner issued a note outlining the rights of children and young people with regards to such testing regimes. The 2020 Annual Report from the Office of the Children's Commissioner further summarises advice provided to the Government regarding testing and all other aspects of Covid-19 policy and legislation affecting children and young people.
Suspension of Legislation affecting Emergency Schools Closures
The Covid-19 (Schools and Day Care of Children) (Jersey) Regulations 2020 were effectively suspended on 30th September 2020, although they were not active at the time as they required the Minister, by published notice, to close schools. This action, undertaken in March 2020, had expired upon the re-opening of schools in June 2020.
Summer term 2021
From 10th May 2021, official Covid-19 guidance in schools was updated to relax the use of masks in school settings during lessons; however, the guidance on maintaining class/year group bubbles remained in place. Guidance on ventilation in schools continued, as well as guidance on hand and respiratory hygiene.
In addition, rules were relaxed to allow nurseries and schools to conduct on-Island trips and residentials for class/year groups; induction days for new or potential children/students (including for new starters to nurseries, primary schools, secondary schools and 16+ providers) were allowed; events involving multiple year groups, or more than two schools (such as sports days or Island-wide school sports events) were permitted subject to a risk assessment; and school 'proms' were able to take place off school premises and subject to Covid-19 regulations for hospitality settings.
Due to the rise in case numbers in the Island in July 2021 (the 'Third Wave'), and the corresponding increase in numbers of children being forced to self-isolate due to being direct contacts, the Minister for Children and Education issued new guidance to schools and colleges. Under the new guidance, provided the child/family had agreed to be tested, then children and young people who were direct contacts of a Covid confirmed case could attend school in advance of the result.
The intention of this revised guidance was "to provide greater clarity and to ensure schools are as safe as possible in the last few days of term."
What will happen next term?
In a response to Written Question 335/2021, the Minister for Children and Education detailed preparations that were underway for a safe return to schools in September 2021. This included the following potential mitigation –
PCR and LFT (Lateral Flow Test) for all staff
Good hand sanitising/hygiene messaging
School ventilation systems and methods are being reviewed
Masks are being worn in communal areas
One-way systems implemented
Bubble groups maintained
Physical distancing maintained
Safety signage and Government messaging reviewed and where required updated
Cleaning strategies reviewed, with frequencies for horizontal surfaces and touch points increased
Suitable and sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) provided