Children face being “robbed” of summer as organisers warn that camps are also at risk from coronavirus bubble rules.
Ministers have been warned that unless restrictions on children’s activities are eased before the summer holidays, it will be “logistically impossible” for many camps and playschemes to take place.
This could store up problems for working parents who rely on summer camps to provide childcare over the long vacation.
“It is really important to think about the summer – this whole idea of only focussing on the school term doesn’t make sense,” said Anita Grant, chairman, Play England.
“It would be really great if the Government would come out clearly and say children are allowed freedom over the summer. They are just ignoring it and concentrating on the school term.”
If bubbles are not axed until September, this will “rob” children of their summer, she added.
“If children are kept restricted and controlled over summer they will have no space to recover,” Ms Grant said. “Allowing children to play freely this summer will improve children’s wellbeing and help them feel less isolated.”
UK Outdoors, which represents providers of summer camps and other outdoor learning activities, has urged the Government to adopt a common sense approach.
Under current guidelines, camps need to operate with children organised into “bubbles” of up to 30. This has made it financially unviable for some organisations to run activities this summer, while others are running but with severely restricted numbers.
“At the moment, summer camps in their traditional form can’t happen, which is a problem for those young people not accessing some fantastic developmental opportunities,” Andy Robinson of UK Outdoors said.
“The Government should take a sensible approach and recognise that summer camps utilise some of the best ventilated options, being outdoors.”
Are bubbles needed now?
When hundreds of people a day were dying of Covid-19, organising children into “bubbles” was seen as the only way of keeping them in school. But a year after the policy was introduced, and with only a handful of deaths a day, the limits of the policy have become clear.
Healthy children have been forced to stay at home as many as seven times due to repeated positive Covid-19 tests among classmates who pose little or no threat to the now largely vaccinated adult population.
As the delta variant spread across the UK, cases began to creep up in schools and the number of children sent home to self-isolate shot up exponentially.
Official data published on Tuesday laid bare the scale of the problem. More than 385,500 pupils are now off school as a result of Covid-19, up from 249,500 the previous week.
At some schools, whole year groups have been repeatedly sent home to self-isolate while others have shut down completely and will remain closed until September.
Current rules state that children have to self-isolate for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble tests positive for coronavirus. While at home, children are meant to be taught remotely but parents say the reality is very different.
Anthony Levings, 47, from Canterbury, said home schooling had been a "nightmare", with his son "unfocused at home, distracted by YouTube and video games".
Meanwhile, Bea Middleton, 31, from Lincolnshire, said the bubble rules were "mind-boggling", with siblings who are in different bubbles at school then mixing at home.
She added: "Children can only mix with their year group but many have family in other bubbles in school who mix outside of school. I feel my daughter is sad she’s unable to socialise with friends in other bubbles during break.”
Molly Kingsley, co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said families are at their “wits’ end”.
“It feels like schools are just being abandoned,” she said. “The absolute last thing children need is to be out of school for a day more than they have to be, they have missed so much.
“Forcing so many healthy children to isolate, in a world where adults are at serious risk have been double vaccinated, is indefensible, and even more so when you look at the way the rules were applied to footballers.”
The Government has acknowledged there is a problem with bubbles, but ministers are reluctant to formally axe the system until they have an alternative to replace it with.
School absences affecting pupils in the most deprived areas in England
Sajid Javid, in his first appearance in the Commons as Health Secretary on Monday, vowed to take "fresh advice" on the issue of children being sent home from school to self-isolate.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said he is aware that a “minority” of children are experiencing disruption to their schooling.
“Whilst pupils who are self-isolating are being immediately provided with high-quality remote education, we know that the best place for children is in the classroom,” he said.
“That is why I am working with the Health Secretary, alongside scientists and public health experts, to relax Covid measures in schools in line with wider work to remove restrictions across society.”
He vowed to “look closely” at the issues surrounding the “need for ongoing isolation of bubbles” adding that Department for Education officials are examining “new models” for keeping children in education.
Nothing until September
Privately, sources in the Department for Education say it is unlikely that any new system would be in place until September at the earliest.
This week the Government issued guidance to schools suggesting that isolation could be replaced with daily testing, depending on the results of a pilot scheme which ends on Wednesday.
Autumn absence rates in schools
The trial is aimed at determining the effectiveness of axing self-isolation of close contacts in favour of daily lateral flow tests for a week. The pilot has been running in around 200 schools and colleges across England, half of which will follow the new guidance, while the others follow the current rules of quarantining.
The trial is taking place in secondary schools only, with no plans to incorporate primary schools into the daily testing plans.
Even school leaders, who have been largely supportive of the bubble policy, have now started to voice their doubts. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the largest union for secondary headteachers, is now openly calling for a change in government policy.
Geoff Barton, general secretary, ASCL, said as schools approach the summer holidays, headteachers are “craving” to know how they will be able to operate next academic year, and “most urgently what will be the alternative to bubbles”.
As he sees it, there are three possible substitutes.
“One is that we accept that vaccinating children is the way out, the wheels are turning slowly on that,” he said.
“The second is for the daily testing to be done at home but we know there are issues around home testing where take up is pretty low.
“The third option is that you recognise that this becomes an illness we manage like a child getting flu, where we do not send all the other children home.”
Some academy bosses have gone further and urged ministers to re-think bubbles before the summer holidays.
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning, said that ten per cent of the children and young people across the group’s 52 schools, around 3,000 children, were out of school due to coronavirus.
He said the current situation is “pretty alarming” adding that something needed to be done about pupils having to go into self-isolation in bubbles as soon as possible.
Even if ministers are considering a new system for September, he said something needs to be done sooner than that.
"There are still three weeks of this summer term to run: you can’t just write-off the rest of the term,” Mr Chalke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Three weeks is a long time in a young child’s life. We should be doing something now about this."
Children failed during pandemic