The Route Out of LockdownMust Involve Making Schools Safe
Mike Buckley calls on the Government to end its blissful ignorance over COVID-19 transmission in schools
We have been told for months to make sensible choices to minimise our personal exposure to COVID-19. After a year of briefings, Government advice and pleas from desperate NHS staff, we know that wearing a mask, social distancing and ventilation help to limit the spread of infection, protect the NHS and save lives.
The public by and large agree, which is clear from high levels of compliance with lockdown rules. For every story of an illegal rave there are a million untold stories of people staying at home to fire up Netflix or Zoom one more time. The spread of the pandemic has not been driven by poor personal choices, however much some Government ministers have tried to insinuate that it has.
The only public environment largely free of social distancing restrictions are schools. Adults may have to queue outside and don a mask before entering a supermarket, but children sit unprotected in classes of 30 or more when schools are open. Pupils are actively told not to wear masks in class, despite having to do so on their way to the school. Lunchtime bubbles of up to 300 eat together in unventilated canteens, with no masks and no social distancing. It’s a recipe for disaster – but the Government maintains its position of blissful ignorance and has no plans to respond.
This wouldn’t matter if children could not contract or pass the virus to others, but children are no less immune than any other age group. Children can and do become ill, some seriously. Unknown numbers, likely in the tens of thousands, have Long COVID-19. Many of them get worse over time – harrowing for parents who experience uneven medical support. Tragically, increasing numbers are dying from multisystem inflammatory syndrome, caused by COVID-19.
Concern for the health of our children alone should be enough to force stronger restrictions in schools, but the need becomes more urgent still when the role of students in transmitting the disease to older groups becomes apparent. A study in over 200 countries found that closing education was the second most effective measure to reduce infection. Recent analysis from the ONS suggests that 2-12 year-olds are two times – and 12-16 year-olds seven times – more likely to be the origin of the virus in a household compared with adults.
As things stand, schools are not safe for children or the adults waiting for them at home. Given the spread of new variants, including some potentially resistant to available vaccines, the need to put more stringent restrictions in place before reopening schools becomes urgent. If we vaccinate those most at risk of death only to have them fall to a new strain transmitted through schools, all our work will have been for nothing.
Beyond those who tragically die, we need to take more account of those who become seriously ill of COVID-19. The ONS estimates that one in 10 adults develop Long COVID-19. Many are yet to recover, and it is possible that some never will.
What’s more, though we don’t yet know the long-term impact of even mild infection on children or adults, what we do know is not good. The Lancet reports that many survivors suffer fatigue or muscle weakness, sleep difficulties, anxiety and depression – months after recovery. Harvard experts report that COVID-19 infection frequently leads to brain damage – particularly in those over 70.
Scientists fear that COVID-19 will behave similarly to other coronaviruses, which can lead to autoimmune diseases, respiratory problems, inflammation of the heart muscle and a host of other complaints. Given that there is a great deal more to discover about this virus – and what we know is bad – the least we can do is protect our children from a disease that could conceivably be with them for life.
A New Curriculum for Schools
Given all this evidence, parents and medics are increasingly concerned that schools should not be reopened until further infection control measures are put in place, yet politicians continue to argue that schools need to reopen as soon as possible and without further restrictions.
Boris Johnson regularly insists that schools are safe. Schools Minister Nick Gibb argues that existing measures “will sufficiently minimise risk in classrooms,” despite all scientific evidence pointing to the contrary. Few in the media have raised the alarm, perhaps because the focus is so squarely on deaths rather than the long-term health of survivors and the pervading falsehood that children are immune.
Few parents are arguing that schools should remain closed. Both parents and professionals recognise that children need an education and social interaction. Instead, they argue that schools should be made safe, and have suggested a range of feasible measures which could be put in place before schools reopen.
Their demands are nothing out of the ordinary – masks at all times, social distancing, ventilation and air filters. Germicidal UV light in air filters or upper air UV light towards the ceiling would add additional protection.
Lunchtimes are a key concern, with tens or hundreds of pupils sitting unmasked in unventilated halls. There are possible solutions, including staggering lunchtimes, eating outdoors using purpose-built tents or shorter school days without lunchtimes or a short, socially distanced snack break in the playground.
None of this is impossible. The limitations are simply political will and money.
The unique challenge is social distancing. Schools were not built to allow social distancing and cannot be reconfigured with high numbers of pupils. Some schools may need to run a staggered programme where children attend part time, working at home on other days – hardly ideal but far better than letting the virus run rampant.
The issue of school safety is likely to dominate coming months. The Government’s unwillingness to countenance the cost of upgrading schools or changing how they operate will collide with scientific recommendations and the will of parents.
The good news is that we do not have to choose between opening schools and keeping them closed. We have options that would enable us to open them safely – we just need to use them. We now need to grasp the nettle before further harm is done to children and their families.
Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’
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