In only a few weeks time, parents are being asked to send their primary-aged children in years R, 1 & 6 back to school as part of a phased-return of the English school system. I confess, I want to be able to send my Reception-aged child to school the day it opens, I really do (and I almost certainly will), but there are a few things that I need from the government to help make this a choice I am truly comfortable in making.
For those reading this post, it is a little longer than usual; please forgive me, but I think people are crying out for detail and for a government (and others) to really trust them with facts. So there are a lot of details here (and links); details help inform choices.
Firstly, let me clarify. I think it is every parent’s right to choose to keep their children away from school, isolating safely within a closed family unit, exercising and going outside only within this unit. For some, whose children are are extremely clinically vulnerable or live in a household with someone else who is, we all understand this is not a choice, it is a necessity. The government has already clarified that no-one will be fined for making the choice to keep their children away from school during the remainder of this academic year.
Secondly, let’s look at ‘the science’ – that catch-all phrase that turns a data-based hypothesis-testing moderniser into an intangible thing the government keeps talking about but only publishing in highly redacted tranches.
Do children catch Coronavirus? Yes
Do children have as severe an illness when they do catch it? No. This seems to be due to the fact that they have different levels of ACE2 receptors in their lungs, or that they have stronger ‘trained immunity’ perhaps due to proximity to recent childhood vaccinations that trigger and ‘train’ immune responses. Read more about that here. This could also mean that children (up to a certain age – this is the problem with secondary and FE) might not produce enough viral load to infect others.
Are children spreaders of the disease? No-one quite knows this yet, there isn’t enough data, but see above article and look at what Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation had to say about this on Sunday 17th May:
What about the new inflammatory disease that children are suffering from around the globe; is this linked to Coronavirus? Again, the science is unclear as some of the children suffering this illness have tested positive for Coronavirus and some have tested negative. Read a newspaper article about this new presenting syndrome here. Of course it is right to point out that the Kawasaki-type illness can be very serious, but is treatable if sepsis and other-linked symptoms are spotted early enough. Clearly the government could issue more guidance on what to be on the lookout for here.
Can children catch Cornonavirus from adults? Definitely.
Can children catch Coronavirus from other children? We don’t know. In a recent study in Australia in 15 schools in New South Wales only 1 secondary student caught the virus from another pupil and 1 primary pupil caught the virus from a teacher. Read about that study here. In information gathered from nurseries linked to NHS hospitals here in the UK, not one child has caught the virus from transmission within those settings. Read more about that here.
What is the risk of a child dying of Coronavirus? Well, less than 5 per 10 million (but that’s at the moment and is given a lockdown-reducing transmission period), but the risk of a child dying from Coronavirus is at the moment less than the risk of a child dying of complications related to varicella (chicken pox virus). See this interesting article which goes a little more into the relative risks and is also a dad’s point of view about sending his children back.
WHAT WILL CLASSROOMS LOOK LIKE?
I hear a lot of people talking about how it will be impossible for young children to socially distance. I’ve had people share sad images of children sitting in chalk circles at break time (*these photos were from France and received a shed load of criticism even in France…), keeping an invisible perimeter between them and other children. I’ve had people say, it will be awful to have spaced-out Victorian-style classrooms, with no toys and what seems very much like no fun. The one thing that is clear from the above, it how a legitimate concern can very quickly be whipped up into fake news. The first communication my own child had from their school about a potential return wasn’t a scary image or a frightening dystopian view of the ‘new normal’ (poor judgement moment from those schools – our kids are anxious enough), it was our amazing headmaster singing a song he’d written himself and playing the piano. Loads of parents on my WhatsApp groups confessed to crying when they watched him perform the song. His lyrics go like this:
We’ve got to be safe,
We’ve got to be smart,
We can’t just pretend that things are the same
(They’re not quite)
But we can enjoy the things that
Feel familiar to us
We can make the best of what we’ve got…
Read this excellent article from the Times Educational Supplement, written by a Danish headteacher about how their primary schools have adapted over the last four weeks since their children went back to school. The thing that struck me was not the fact that they are getting through the curriculum faster, but rather that the new routines have led to the children ‘becoming more creative in their play.’ There will be struggles, there will be challenges, but there will also be opportunities. Our teachers are fantastic, resourceful and creative too. So many of my friends are teachers and they will do a great job of making the ‘new normal’ the sort of community experience in which children can grow and learn, sharing their struggles and worries alongside their achievements and their joys.
Yes, primary classrooms will look and feel a little different. Classes will be smaller (max. 15 pupils) but these 15 pupils (if of primary school age) will still be able to play together. The main government advice is about minimising contact between each small group of 15 (these groups of 15 are called ‘bubbles’) and so making sure that contacts are (if needed to be) as traceable as possible. Sending children back into a controlled bubble if done right, is way safer than meeting up for a playdate with a couple of different families each week (which is, of course, still completely against the rules and will continue to be so for a long time I suspect).
The government guidance (read it in full here) does not explicitysay that young (primary-aged) children have to remain 2m from each other at all times, although unions are calling for this to be made more explicit. It is completely unclear how full 2m social distancing is possible in Early Years Settings (nurseries are also due to reopen on June 1st). Secondary pupils can easily do this and will, for some time, be expected to. We can assume that in primary settings, desks will be more spaced out; they won’t sit directly opposite each other eating lunch, hand washing with be supervised and much more regular, toilet breaks will be staggered away from other ‘bubbles’ etc. but I do trust schools (well, certainly, my own kid’s school) to preserve a degree of normalcy in these abnormal times. Play equipment will be regularly cleaned down; some ‘soft’ toys and furnishings which retain fluids will be removed; play times will happen but with apparatus selected for, and only used by, that particular ‘bubble’ with plenty of hand sanitiser before and after play; much more time will be spent outside in fresh air with sunlight helping with Vitamin D levels etc. Many other measures that are tricky for schools to organise will also be adoped, but – once organised – these measures will be picked up by children easily. Children are very resilient; they adapt; they are marvellous, we all know that. If schools need a little more time to give implement and plan for these measures, give them a little more time, it is important to get right.
HOW SAFE WILL CHILDREN AND TEACHERS BE?
No school can guarantee that anyone in it (adult or child) will not catch Coronavirus. Life is rarely an exercise in cast-iron guarantees; what the government (and Senior Leadership Teams / Governing Bodies) of every school need to do, is effectively an epic risk assessment exercise, making sure that where a reasonable action can be taken to reduce risk, it is taken. Note, the word ‘reasonable’: no-one expects people to turn up to school only to be sprayed down / popped into a hasmat suit. But, the government has to give teachers & unions greater say in the next week, over what the teaching body want and needin order to teach safely. If they need visors, they should have visors. If they need gloves, they must have gloves. The government must make sure that there is enough PPE for schools. If this means delaying the return to school for a week or two, delay it and get the planning right. The NEU (the biggest teaching union have been clear about their needs for maximise safety for all at this point – see here for a link to their requests of government and how teachers can check that their own workplaces will be as safe as possible). The unions are amazing. I used to be an NEU rep myself. Some of the media that are portaying them as militant obstructors of children’s opportunities are ridiculous: I haven’t met a teacher yet who isn’t itching to get back in the (safe) classroom, but we all understand the difficult decisions that teachers (and of course, a lot of workers in a lot of other sectors, are grappling with at the moment – see this excellent article in the New Statesman by a teacher clearly discussing the contradictory feelings around a return to work).
We must see more of the scientific papers the government has seen around the safety / infection implications of a school return. I am hopeful that SAGE will publish more of their advice to the government this week.
WON’T EVERYTHING BE SAFER BY SEPTEMBER?
Again, the truth is we just don’t know. The virus will still be here. With around 3000 new cases of Coronavirus a day and a R (Rate of Infection rate) of 0.5, it would still take 16 months (given an overall infected estimated population of 300,000) for there to be 0 new cases. We’ve had nearly 250k confirmed cases of COVID since March and the overall infected population will be much higher than that. Our R rate has never been 0.5. By this logic and the given mathematics, Britain won’t be free without a vaccine until at least July 2021 and much more likely well into 2022.
It is clear of course, even with predicted possible vaccine timetables, this virus will be active in Britain well into 2021. Without a vaccine of course, it will probably never go away and humans will have to adapt to live with flare ups and seasonal pressures that this puts on communities.
In September, there will be other pressures too. 60% of secondary students in our area travel to school by bus. One of the reasons primary school students have been targeted for returning first is that most can travel to and from school without coming into contact with other students or families outside their class. For a projected September full return of secondary schools, this raises a huge problem around co-infection and will be a story that develops as the summer goes on.
It is highly unlikely that all students would just return to school en-mass at the beginning of September. Again, one of the reasons for beginning to return some students now, is to avoid a slower 6-8 week bit-by-bit return of students in the Autumn. Getting individual year groups used to ‘new normal’ in schools will take time. If we didn’t return some students this summer, it is quite possible that some year groups might not return before Christmas.
There also could well be a second peak (and potentially) a further lockdown in the Autumn. The WHO is warning Europe to prepare for this second peak, in terms of building capacity in PPE provision and hospital ward staffing and capabilities.
Staffing could also be an issue in September if those currently classed as extremely vulnerable must (as we anticipate) continue to shield at home. Teachers are classified as key workers, so their own school-aged children (regardless of age) cango to school (this is true now). So whilst childcare concerns are not likely to drive staffing issues, health issues experienced by the teacher or if the teacher is themselves a parent of a shielding and vulnerable child will affect who can be in the workplace. Listen to this radio interview from BBC Radio 5 Live with a Danish primary school teacher who explained how they had coped with the similar staffing issues
LEARNING IS THE GREATEST GIFT
The attainment gap in schools between children from disadvantaged children and their better off peers is widening with each week of school closure. The Department for Education said in Teach First magazine last week that it ‘could widen by as much as 75 per cent because of the coronavirus outbreak.’ See the full article here. These lost weeks could have lifelong implications. The BBC reports here that children from middle income and higher income families are studying more than students from less well off households. Of course, with many households without internet, tablets for children to access online learning platforms and extra pressure on household utility bills because of everyone being home, this is felt acutely by those households, many of which are under extra pressure to return to work as they undertake those jobs that cannot be done from home.
Worryingly though, the government’s messaging on the need for a return to school isn’t cutting through to the households that it is claiming most need that return to happen. This isn’t a surprise: the government’s messaging throughout the whole crisis (apart from the ‘protect the NHS’ message, has been atrocious). The graph below shows how it is the households with the lowest average incomes that are most reluctant to send their children back to school:
THINGS I’D LIKE TO SEE BEFORE THE RETURN TO SCHOOL IS CONFIRMED
As I said at the beginning, I’m hoping to send my Reception-aged child back as soon as schools open. He is desperate to return, having missed his friends and – despite my husband and I having kept up (so far) 51 days (Yes, Will and Kate: we didn’t tell them it was the Easter holidays either…) of 9am-3pm parent school – he really misses the great teachers he has. Equally, I’m quite looking forward to sitting on the beach with friends when restrictions are relaxed, but I don’t think I can do that without some level of hypocrisy unless I engage in to the return-to-school agenda. Here are the things I would like to see sorted by government (and agreed between government and unions) before that happens though:
- RATE OF ‘R’ GIVEN FOR LOCAL COMMUNITY TRANSMISSION
So far, we are only getting average Regional ‘R’ rates – this includes in the average given, the R ratings for care homes and hospitals. It is quite likely that community (i.e not hospital and care home) R ratings is below 0.5 in some areas. We need to know this. Communities who see their R soar, must be allowed to close schools on a regional basis, especially in these early months as the government monitors the effect of schools reopening on community transmission of Coronavirus. This could be done on a Local Education Authority level perhaps.
2. TEACHERS TO BE ALLOWED AND SUPPORTED TO WEAR THE PPE THEY NEED AND CHOOSE TO
Government have to confirm they have the stocks of PPE to stock schools as requested, and as needed. There can be no compromise on this.
3. PARENTS OF CLINICALLY-VULNERABLE CHILDREN TO HAVE JOB SECURITY AND WAGE SECURITY EXTENDED
If you have to stay home because your child cannot go to school because they are in the shielding category, then you must have your job retained and your wage secured. The Local Education Authorities will have to look quickly at how tutoring could be provided to extremely clinically vulnerable children, as they may well be unable to return to school in 2020.
4. TESTING, TESTING, TESTING
Full test, track and trace system to be launched as schools go back OR preferably beforehand. This is to include a fully functioning App. Furthermore, at the moment only children 5 or over can be tested for Coronavirus; the government must clarify how symptomatic 4 year olds (in Reception classes) or indeed those younger children in Early Years settings will quickly be tested in order to keep their ‘class units / bubbles’ as safe as possible.
5. POLITICIANS, SCHOOL GOVERNORS AND THOSE IN LEADERSHIP POSITIONS IN SCHOOLS SENDING THEIR OWN CHILDREN BACK TO SCHOOL
We can’t have the ‘it is good enough for your children, but not for mine’ scenario emerging. If school governors pass the safety measures needed to reopen their school, their own children must go back; if teachers turn up to work, but keep their own children away, it will raise more questions in the minds of parents than not and worst of all, if any politician who supports the reopening of schools keep their own children away. People who have responsibilities must lead by example.