Operating ‘Bubbles’ in the School Environment.

It has often been said that as humans, we live in our own little ‘bubbles!’ As creatures of habit we abide in our own worlds. We generally shop in the same grocery stores, follow the same sports teams, drink in the same local pubs etc. We live our lives with a certain amount of ‘sameness’ and unwittingly, the routine that we know so well gives us not only a feeling of contentment but also a sense of security.

It wasn’t until the Covid 19 pandemic struck that the idea of the ‘bubble’ took on a new sense of purpose. First introduced in New Zealand with the aim of helping people who had been cut off from friends and family during the pandemic, the ‘bubble’ was defined as a ‘group of people with whom you have had close physical contact.’

When the UK government published its safety plans for the ‘return to school,’ at the commencement of the new academic year in 2020, they were centred around the keeping of Year groups and/or Classes in ‘bubbles.’

One could claim that schools had a ready-made ‘bubble’ in the shape of a named class-grouping. The nature of schooling is such that Year Groups are divided into Classes for teaching purposes. With a system of distinct categorization of pupils already in place, the school could be described as an already established ‘controlled environment. Class groupings should assist with the identification of ‘close contacts’ should a positive case of the virus emerge within a class setting.

Along with the other requirements - such as the thorough washing of hands and the wearing of a mask, schools insist on social distancing being adhered to as much as possible. This means keeping close contact between pupils to a minimum.

In practice, head teachers concede that it is next to impossible to attempt to keep groups of pupils apart for the length of a whole school day. Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union believes “the logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school is mind-boggling." He asks that we maintain “a sense of reality about what is possible."

The National Education Union went further, claiming said the plans were "more based on hope than science."

The objective behind the maintaining of distinct groups or bubbles that do not mix, is to prevent the spread of the virus in the event of an occurrence within a particular section of the school. It also makes it quicker and easier where a positive case has occurred, to identify those who may need to self-isolate and so, keep that number as small as possible.

The difficulty of course for schools, is that for this plan to work, they must also try to reduce the circulation of people internally by reducing movement on corridors. Teachers in primary's generally work within their own classrooms. In secondary's, teachers are usually required to move between classes with pupils remaining in the same classroom-location. Traveling by bus to and from school brings an additional conundrum as inevitably it means that students across all year groups are together in another setting.

So, while ones learning-group is defined as the 'class,' each pupil also has a travel-group, a geographical-group in terms of where one resides and possibly a sports or music-group. In reality, there are many interactions amongst individuals that extend far and beyond one’s class.

Schools of course do all within their power to reduce the contact time between pupils outside the class-group by arranging separate starting times, staggering morning and lunch breaks, restricting access to outside play areas, limiting entrance and exit to assigned doorways and enforcing strict regulations for guided movement such as one-way directional systems inside the building. While all these efforts help, it is impossible to completely safeguard everyone from an air-borne virus if the conditions are right for it to strike.

Aware of the various ways that pupils can interact outside the classroom, the ‘bubble’ concept is already in review since the return to school in September 2020. Schools were discovering that with so many considerations to be taken aboard, they were having to oversee a constantly changing venn diagram showing all the possible logical relations between a collection of different sets of pupils.

Whether or not this is actually possible with limited resources remains to be seen. Certainly, to date it has posed problems that left some schools expressing concerns as to how they manage such a scenario.

Public Health Guidance does not state that whole year groups will necessarily have to isolate if one case of Covid-19 is reported. Instead, schools are expected to refer to their local health protection team to decide the best course of action on a case-by-case basis. The health protection team will then carry out a rapid risk assessment and provide clear advice on who must be 'sent' home.

However, any student or member of staff who develops symptoms of coronavirus in school must self-isolate (in accordance with the guidance of the time) and ensure that they have been tested.

Once the school has been alerted of a positive case amongst its pupils and the risk assessment team are acting on it, it needs to enact its communications strategy to clearly and definitively inform parents of follow up procedures.

Edtap's Access365 offers schools the opportunity to classify pupils not only according to their classes but also according to ‘Bubbles’ where necessary. These can be set up by the school according to the criteria that it decides.

A key point here is that the ’bubble’ can be the grouping that you wish it to be. It may be created either before or after the existence of a positive test case scenario. Aside from being the most natural group entity such as a 'class,' it could be 'those who travel on the No 42 school bus,' the 'choir,'  the 'pupils who reside in the Weaver’s Estate' or the 'school staff.'

With ‘contact-tracing’ giving valuable information about a positively diagnosed pupil’s recent associations beyond their class-grouping, assigning these pupils to a bubble at that stage can be crucial. The school can now reach directly, the parents of those impacted within the bubble explaining the situation and instructing them in the procedures and processes to be followed without causing unnecessary panic or concern for those unaffected.

Headmasters have realised that having an immediate real-time communication opportunity via the app - to reach a group identified within a ‘bubble’ that they have created themselves, buys crucial time in alerting those who may have been in contact with a positive case.

Doing so accurately and without delay gives reassurance to the school community that the ’bubbles’ are there to protect us all by disrupting the spread of the virus.

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