The government looks set to move to reopening schools in some way from 8 March, and then a wider reopening across society. They are talking up a possible ‘big bang’ with most children back in schools on 8 March. That would be a lethal mistake.
Ramming 10 million students straight back into schools would cost lives, undo all the gains from the lockdown and plunge us back into the chaos we saw in schools before Christmas. The joint statement by the education unions is right in describing such plans as reckless, and they go against all scientific advice.
If the Tories try to press ahead with this lethal plan there is only one answer. We must act in the way we did last June and January to stop them and to save lives.
The Tories say they are concerned with families, children and their welfare. Their only real concern is with getting back to profit making, urged on by the hyenas on their own back benches and their business backers.
As they have done throughout this pandemic, they will put our lives and safety at risk to satisfy their thirst for profit- even when it risks more lockdowns and disruption in the months ahead.
Every parent and every educator wants schools open, and open fully, as soon as is safely and sustainably possible.
The damage done to children by the months of isolation, cut off from play and social interaction is real and growing. So too are the intense strains on families as they struggle to cope.
But an unsafe return would lead to more lives lost, on top of the horrific death toll already caused by this government’s criminal handling of the pandemic.
No educator, no parent and no school student wants a return to the chaos and stop-start situation we faced in schools in the run up to Christmas, with year groups and bubbles in and out of schools in a chaotic yo-yo fashion.
The heads of NHS Trusts wrote to the government on 17 February warning “that if restrictions are eased too quickly the infection rate could increase rapidly again, putting lives unnecessarily at risk and raising the possibility of of the need for another national lockdown”.
So what should happen to ensure a safe and sustainable return to schools?
Firstly, schools should be a national priority. The Tories say this, but on their lips it is a lie. If it were true they would enforce restrictions elsewhere to allow schools to reopen.
Yet the TUC reports that one in five workers are now still being forced into workplaces even though they could work form home, fuelling increased social mixing and spreading infection.
Not one company has been prosecuted or fined for this outrage that is prolonging the pandemic and putting lives at risk.
That scandal needs to stop and action taken quickly if we are to see schools open safely.
All the scientific advice is that we should proceed with caution around school opening. SAGE told the government it had to shut schools in December because the evidence was clear on “increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open” and this was a factor in driving community transmissions.
The official Office for National Statistics has reported this month that its comprehensive data shows that people aged between 2 and 17 are much more likely to be the first case in a household than others – and then spreading it to others.
While infection rates have come down during lockdown, the decline has been slowest among children – with most scientists saying this is due to the numbers still going in to school during lockdown.
So while we want schools open we need caution.
Of course staff and student safety matters, but the biggest danger is of schools helping drive community infections back up again.
The first and crucial necessity before any wider opening of schools must be much lower Covid infection rates in the community.
NHS chiefs and some members of SAGE have argued that opening things up should not begin until case rates are below 1,000 a day nationally. Independent Sage recommends rates must be below 100 per 100,000 before re-opening.
What is in no doubt is that moving too quickly risks another spike and more chaos. A cautious approach would allow time for vaccinations to reach enough people to ensure we did not slip back in the way that happened before Christmas.
There are only 15 school days in most of England from 8 March to the start of the Easter holidays. The safest thing would surely be to maintain the lockdown for this 15 days, while also cracking down on people being forced into work by employers.
Just 15 days more would in effect buy 5 more weeks for even more vaccinations, and to drive down infections to the levels NHS chiefs and most scientists say is needed.
Such low levels also make it much easier for effective track and trace to work, and so keep infections low. Such a delay would mean a greater possibility that we could safely re-open schools after Easter, with safety measures in place, in a way that would be sustainable right through to the summer and beyond – which surely must the aim.
Certainly there should be no question at all of even a limited reopening of schools (of younger children and selected groups) until infection rates are below the 100 cases per 100,000 of population which is a key threshold recommended by the Independent SAGE group of scientists.
At the time of writing (19 February) this is not the case in most areas. It may be in some by 8 March – it would be safer to delay a few more days and use the Easter break to then allow a much safer, more sustainable and fuller re-opening afterwards.
Scotland is having some limited reopening for the equivalent of Reception and years 1 and 2 – and a very small number of secondary pupils. Wales is having a more cautious and limited reopening too.
The data on what that does to infection rates should certainly be considered before any wider moves both there and in England.
In Scotland they are insisting on social distancing such as 2m between students in secondaries. That is right and something we need to insist on when any reopening comes in England too.
In any phased return we need to start cautiously, with only some year groups in, and strict limits on social mixing. That means no whole year group bubbles, and will mean blended learning or rotas too.
It could mean in primaries finding ways to limit numbers on site at any time through some kind of rota or “blended learning” system.
In secondaries social distancing means smaller classes – therefore rotas of some kind.
In all cases “bubble” sizes need to be limited and there should be no whole year or key stage bubbles, as was happening in some places before Christmas.
Maintaining smaller classes and reducing social mixing also means looking at using other buildings near schools – so-called Nightingale Schools.
Mask wearing is needed too – including in classes certainly for older students (with adjustments for medical needs and transparent masks to help communication).
Testing is crucial, and the lateral flow tests being proposed for schools can help identify some asymptomatic cases. But these tests are not a substitute for full tests or for isolation of contacts in the case of positive cases.
And once infection rates are low enough we need proper tracking and tracing best done by local health experts, not the shambles of privatised chaos that the government has presided over so far.
All of this is possible and could and should be done. The worst thing would be to recklessly rush and end up with more lockdowns or more of the chaos that we saw before Christmas.
If the government nevertheless tries to push through an unsafe “big bang” return that endangers staff and students and the wider community we should of course be ready again to take the kind of action we did last June and in January to stop that.
And when we do return we will need to organise to insist on and enforce the measures outlined here which are needed to be in place to help create a return that we all desperately want and which is safe and sustainable.
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