Fury as new coronavirus guidance for schools comes out on Friday afternoon before pupils return

New coronavirus guidance for schools has been issued by the government just days before pupils return to class, prompting Labour to describe it as “insulting” to staff.

Union leaders also reacted with dismay after the four-tier response to outbreaks was announced on Friday evening just before the Bank Holiday weekend.

The guidance indicates that a rota system which limits the number of pupils attending secondary schools could be used in local lockdown zones.

If a coronavirus case is confirmed, every pupil in the affected person’s class, or “bubble”, may have to quarantine for two weeks, the education department’s guidance originally said. However, a later version appeared to have removed this detail.

In the worst-case scenario nurseries, primary schools and secondary schools will close again except for the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said any changes to school attendance “will only ever be an absolute last resort” but added: “It is important that both government and schools prepare for a worst case scenario, so this framework represents the sensible contingency planning any responsible government would put in place.”

However, school leaders criticised the timing of the announcement as millions of pupils and teachers prepare to return to classrooms next week for autumn term.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “To wait until the Friday night before most schools return isn’t the government’s finest moment.

“Obviously, schools haven’t had any chance whatsoever to incorporate this into their planning and will now have to revisit the plans they have put in place.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “We’ve been calling for the government to publish a Plan B for several weeks.

“Finally it is here, but another late-night publication is fairly typical of what we’ve become used to.”

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Meanwhile Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the timing of the guidance “beggars belief”.

She added: “It beggars belief that this guidance has been put out just days before schools reopen. The government’s incompetence is insulting to the school leaders and teachers who have worked so hard over summer to prepare schools for children to return.

“School is the best place for children to be in September, but this government has repeatedly failed to show the leadership that they, their families and their teachers deserve.”

Teachers and staff also questioned whether the guidance could see large numbers of pupils being sent home in the event of one positive case because they are all in the same bubble. However this part of the guidance appeared to have been deleted late on Friday night. It originally read: “If a case is confirmed, local public health officials will work with the school to take appropriate measures, including asking all members of a pupil’s bubble to isolate for 14 days and access remote education while other pupils continue attending.”

For areas under local lockdowns, tier one would see all schools remain open but face coverings should be worn by adults and pupils in Year 7 and above when moving around the building.

The second tier would involve a rota system for secondary schools, with pupils spending two weeks in class and two weeks learning remotely at home.

Tiers three and four mean more stringent restrictions such as closures to all but pupils in vulnerable groups or children of key workers.

Boris Johnson said on Friday that “absolutely every pupil needs to be back in school” during a question-and-answer session alongside England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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