I’d like to voice my concerns about the lack of recognition of the dynamics of aerosol transmission and the way this has been ignored, minimised, and underplayed from the time it was first raised by key national & international experts & organisations. This is particularly concerning within the educational sectors, because it has led to a refusal to implement key safety measures which are required in all other indoor settings & workplaces where people (and hence different households) mix.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, this lack of recognition and refusal to implement mitigations has caused much anxiety to my family, and especially to my 13 year old daughter who was expected to attend her year 8 class. As a multi-cultural family, with relatives and friends in many parts of the world, we naturally followed the spread of the pandemic through international news and personal stories from friends and family abroad. I was alarmed when the warning sent by the Italian authorities in early 2020 to countries where the virus had not fully spread yet, such as the UK, was not taken seriously. Instead of using time, research, resources, and strategic decision-making, the government downplayed the severity of COVID, taking no precautions to stop the spread. When this happened, we knew we had to brace for the worst. Our friends in Italy, could not understand why the UK would not learn from their mistakes to save lives and protect their country from a virus whose mechanism was not yet clearly understood.
During the first wave, we were relieved that children were allowed to stay home. However, because of the lack of preparation and resources, it was hard to adjust to home learning initially. It was especially the lack of clear messaging from the government that caused anxiety about what we were allowed to do as opposed to what we should all do in order to ensure the best outcome was reached. There was little recognition of how the virus suddenly revealed that individual freedom has little meaning in a society that is clearly interconnected and where one’s actions affect the life of others in the community, the region, the country.
The anxiety that my daughter had pre-pandemic increased in 2020 and manifested itself with concerns about how the virus spreads and what it was safe to do. We strongly feel that the government’s failure to launch a clear and honest public campaign about the dynamics of transmission and how we could protect ourselves caused a great deal of anxiety, especially when the directives relating to schools started becoming irrational and in sharp contrast to recommendations which applied to other indoor spaces. It is difficult to explain to a 13 year old that she must wear a mask and keep social distance in order to keep safe when we go a shop, but it is apparently safe to stay in crammed classrooms all day long without masks and social distance! With bubbles of 200 pupils, interchanging every hour for classes, my daughter felt unsafe and unprotected every time she went to school; every day she would tell me ‘nobody wears masks, mummy, and we are all very close together in the classroom’. In the canteen, they sit very close together (shoulder to shoulder) and facing each other.
Every time I raised the issue of safety with the school, I was given the same response ‘We follow government’s guidance. The school is safe’, or ‘All children are expected to attend school, because it is best for their mental health’. We felt that none of our concerns were addressed, and soon these ready-made sentences felt false and mechanical. The same sentences were used when the school had cases in every year group, and when more and more parents and pupils started raising concerns about the level of hygiene in the schools, and especially in shared spaces such as toilets and canteens. Our concerns were never addressed.
In September 2020, our daughter told us that three children had disappeared during the day from her year bubble, because they were unwell. When I called the school and asked questions, they said they couldn’t share any information, but they would inform all parents if the school received notification of any positive cases. I raised the issue of timing, as by the time the results were back (between 5 to 8 days), our daughter would potentially be exposed to an unsafe environment. Once again, we were informed that the school follows government’s guidance, and that the school is safe. The day after our daughter showed symptoms, so we wrote to the school to ask for temporary home learning arrangements on the basis of underlying health conditions that made our family vulnerable. We were granted the temporary arrangement, however in mid-October the school argued that the medical evidence was not robust enough to continue that arrangement and demanded full return. Despite several requests to GPs and consultants, we were refused letters of support to be forwarded to the school, they said they were not allowed to write such letters. We were stuck in a vicious cycle, as the school wanted evidence that we were not able to provide due to the government’s advice to doctors. Our daughter’s anxiety increased considerably, and was unable to attend even twice a week. When she was unable to attend, the absence was always logged as ‘unauthorised’, whether it was for a full day or even just for one hour. We were refused access to remote learning, as that was provided ‘only’ to children who had to be sent home to isolate.
In November 2020, three of my daughter’s friends/classmates were sent home to isolate following a positive case in her year bubble, but I received no notification. Because those three children had been in close proximity with my daughter (not only in class but also during breaks and in the canteen for lunch), I made an enquiry, but was told that only close contacts are required to isolate and not the close contacts of close contacts. Once again, the school said they follow government’s guidance for their case management. A few days afterwards my daughter developed symptoms and I was advised to book a test.
I feel that the school has shown little recognition of the way their lack of flexibility has affected & increased my daughter’s anxiety. I feel that the current guidance leaves little space to the nuances of specific family situations, like ours. For instance, while the school acknowledged the anxiety on the level of procedures in making a referral to support services (we are still waiting for a specialist worker to be assigned to us; we were told there is a long wait), in practical terms they failed to consider ways in which to accommodate her needs. The possibility of involving the attendance officers and going down the route of fines if attendance was not followed was raised in the presence of my daughter, which only served to increase her anxiety further. She felt ‘forced’ & ‘pressured’ to agree to the school’s attendance plan. We are now told that the attendance solutions officer is involved because our daughter’s attendance record is low. However, the attendance record is ‘low’ due to the absences logged as ‘unauthorised’ & lack of recognition of the effect of my daughter’s anxiety. I am concerned about the way this will affect our family at a time when the new strains pose a bigger threat to our safety and wellbeing. My personal statement shows the limitations of the ‘one size fits all’ argument, as the government’s focus on in-person attendance as being best for children’s mental health does not apply to our family: it is in-person attendance & pressure to do so at a time she feels unsafe that has increased my daughter’s anxiety.
I hope that this statement can be used in support of a request for the government to design and implement a long-term strategy for safer schools based on the latest scientific advice. I believe the current case management protocol (sending home only close contacts sitting right next to the positive case) is inadequate to address the dynamics of aerosol transmission, let alone the higher transmissibility of the new (and future) strains, as proven by many experts in the field. It is also difficult to understand the refusal to enforce masks (with exceptions) in all areas of the school – especially in secondary schools – and not just in communal spaces such as corridors.
Most importantly, I feel that at times of crisis, the government should empower parents to assess the level of risks within their own family nucleus, because one size does not fit all. My daughter is very happy with remote learning and she has produced excellent work during the current lockdown. She finds that she has more time to do her school work, and nurture her hobbies and interests, while also keeping in touch with friends and relatives. I feel that allowing families who can take care of their children’s home learning, like ours, to make those decisions on a temporary basis is the way forward. Until a plan for safer schools is fully implemented and community transmission decreases, we do not feel safe. Thank you.