I am the father of 2 girls in primary school. I am an honorary professor in microbiology, and have professional experience of containing high-risk microorganisms. I supervise PhD students, but people who insist on full school opening at all costs’ tell me I don’t value education.
I first learned our primary school had arranged a “touch-and-feel” visit from a travelling reptile-zoo based in Brighton in March 2020 (UK Covid hotspot at that that time). None in the school thought this might be unwise in a pandemic thought to have arisen from the abuse of wildlife. Before reopening in September 2020, I arranged a meeting with the head to discuss ways to limit transmission of Coronavirus in school. Among many things, I pointed out the need for clear messaging to parents, requiring “that people who are ill stay at home” (as stated in government guidance). I was ignored.
I reminded the school head and governors of the need to protect children, parents, and community: that a zero-tolerance policy on symptoms was the first sensible step in controlling the virus. They laughed at this and told me it would be a ‘disaster’ if they had to send just one child home if it turned out they only had a cold. I contacted my local MP and education authority, warning of a “bloodbath” that autumn if we did not apply basic limits to transmission in schools (e.g. zero tolerance on symptoms, distancing, ventilation) – but my concerns were dismissed. Our local education authority consulted their legal team and wrote to me redefining the meaning of the term “illness” presumably so more children could attend the cramped unsafe buildings as wished for by the Department for Education (DfE).
On the 3rd day of term (September 2020) my daughter told me she’d been forced to sit in direct contact with another child who was coughing throughout the day. She wanted to keep attending school – but not sit next to a coughing contagious other in this pandemic: “why can’t they make the sick children go home daddy”? The sick child’s attendance was supported; my daughter was denied the freedom to move to another seat. This affected her confidence in herself, in teachers and authority. Fortunately, the illness did turn out to be ‘just a cold’ but spread throughout the class like wildfire just as coronavirus would have – proving that bubbles and hand-washing are not adequate to control for a respiratory virus.
I’ve seen research suggesting that one influenza like infection increases chances of transmitting others. This is expected as a sneeze triggered by one virus can provide dispersal for transmission that would otherwise not occur (e.g. for otherwise asymptomatic covid). Failure to keep out all broad symptoms causes confusion (diagnosis), outbreaks, and overburdened test and trace system last year. If I could ask for change, I would ask for schools to respect safe limits to pupil density.
Without a doubling of school building space and new ventilation, this would mean *ensuring* rotas are in place to keep attendance below 33% before reopening. We have no evidence that exceeding 33% is at all safe (approx. June 2020 levels). We *do* know that September reopening was a national failure driving transmission, and this was before the more transmissible variant.
The phrase I cannot forget from my school head is this “we have no obligation to listen to anyone except the recognised authorities”. I hope the DfE puts a clear cap on pupil density in class (33%) and mandates school authorities to ensure everyone gets the message to keep all symptomatic viruses at home. Without several tests, nobody can confidently tell if their child has coronavirus1 (a cold) vs. coronavirus2 (covid). I think the government should support employers to give parents the flexibility required to reduce class density and keep ill children at home as this helps the whole community.