We campaign for the following changes to the schools Covid guidance in the UK (this is a summary – find a full briefing below the video):
- Significantly reduced class sizes to enable physical distancing
- Improved ventilation (and monitoring of ventilation)
- Masks in classrooms for teachers and pupils who are not exempted (12+ as recommended by WHO and already in place in Scotland)
- Suspension of mandatory attendance during the pandemic, with temporary remote education allowed and supported for all families able to do so, and particularly for those where there are clinically vulnerable persons.
- Clear instructions to parents to keep children who are ill at home (including a broader range of symptoms now that we know more about how Covid presents in children).
Resuming In-Person Education
A Summary Briefing by SafeEdForAll
UK Government’s own Children’s Task and Finish Group, 17 December 2020 (based on data up to the 2nd of December 2020 (and not taking into account the implications of new Kent variant) found that, children and young people are more likely than those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household. Those aged 12 to 16 are nearly 7 times as likely to be the first case in their household compared to those 17+.
According to Office for National Statistics weighted fortnightly estimates for SARS-CoV-2 prevalence, 11-16-year-olds were the highest-infected age group from mid November until schools closed, and 2-11-year-olds were the second-highest-infected age group from early December until schools closed. These two age groups also saw the most rapid increase in prevalence of any age group in the period from early December until school closures. On the other hand, once schools closed in December, 2-11-year-olds and 11-16-year-olds quickly became the first two age groups to decrease in prevalence while all other age groups continued to increase.
It is understandably a priority to ensure that education provision during a global pandemic is safe, sustainable and fair to all.
In a democratic society it is accepted that; ‘to knowingly and unnecessarily expose anyone (regardless of age or occupation) to an increased risk of infection is not morally or legally acceptable’
This principle in regard to parental responsibility is enshrined in legislation.
Already there are legal challenges regarding forced return to in-person education during a global pandemic for CV, CEV children and those whom live with household members who have underlying medical conditions. Further legal challenges will be mounted if the safety measures in place in schools, for full return to in-person education, are not deemed to legally meet the standards of other indoor settings and workplaces, or the public health advice regarding necessary mitigations required for indoor settings.
With all of this in mind (plus the knowledge of Long Covid in children, the fact that children and young people DO contract and DO transmit the virus combined with the planned return to in-person education being discussed), it is important to take a look at the existing ‘system of controls’ in place in our UK schools, which has been described as robust by the Department for Education.
This ‘system of controls’ currently allows schools to operate;
• ‘bubbles of 300’ (year group bubbles),
• classrooms of 30+ members of different households,
• ignore social distancing (if not possible to achieve with current classroom density),
• not monitor ventilation provision (no HSE or CIBSE guidance provided to comply with legal requirements),
• no masks used in classrooms,
• no guidance for specific ‘super spreader events’ such as indoor lunchtimes where whole bubbles sit unmasked opposite each other on bench tables.
On September 21st 2020 in a televised briefing, Sir Patrick Vallance began by explaining;
“Let me just start by reminding you that this disease spreads by droplets, by surface contact and by aerosols. Hence the hands, face, space but also to remind you that the way that we reduce the spread is by limiting our number of contacts, by reducing contact in environments where spread is more likely. Those are crowded environments, indoor environments, poor ventilation”
All other indoor settings where household mix, subsequently have been required to;
• Reduce the numbers on site at any one time (density)
• Ask visitors to that setting to use a face-covering
• Ensure there is adequate ventilation monitoring
Commonly referred to in the UK as HANDS, FACE, SPACE, REPLACE. These recognised scientific safety measures must not be ignored once a child, young person or member of school staff steps inside a school building.
The school term September 2020-December 2020 saw many pupils, school staff and their families affected by repeated isolations, infections of themselves and family members and in some cases lack of remote educational support. If the UK is serious about prioritising in-person education, whilst also taking every precaution to reduce community transmission this must not be allowed to happen again.
The key question that needs to be addressed urgently is: What can be done to reduce risk of exposure to infection, within a school setting, to the lowest practicable level as required by Health and Safety Legislation?
The UK Health and Safety Executive states, in relation to Covid-19, that employers must;
• identify what work activity or situations might cause transmission of the virus
• think about who could be at risk
• decide how likely it is that someone could be exposed
• act to remove the activity or situation, or if this isn’t possible, control the risk
The Scottish Government have revised their guidance to schools in preparation for their Nation’s phased return to in-person education and provided an additional £40m for ventilation monitoring and improvements within schools.
There have been many comprehensive reports, plans and recommendations produced by the teaching unions, Independent Sage, Parents United and SafeEdForAll which follow the science, current knowledge of infection control and the practicalities of education provision. They all are based on the precautionary principle acknowledging that at present there are knowns, unknowns and fluctuations regarding transmission rates, community infection levels and long-term possible consequences for even mild or asymptomatic infections.
All of these reports and plans have similarities regarding steps to ensure resuming in-person education does not unnecessarily expose children, young people, school staff and their families to any increased risk of exposure.
SafeEdForAll condense the main elements of these plans, recommendations and reports into 5 simple steps that could be undertaken, cost effectively and quickly, so as not to delay a return to in-person education, but aim to balance the need for safety with the need for resuming in-person education.
Children with covid are known to present with a wide range of symptoms. It is important that all of these symptoms are communicated to the public. Not just the 3 regularly mentioned.
Testing is important, but testing should not be used in preference to other mitigations rather should be combined with all other NPIs.
Symptomatic individuals are more contagious than asymptomatic.
Several viruses can infect an individual.
Schools should instruct all parents to ‘keep children with illness at home’.
Windows must be kept open.
Ventilation must be monitored through the use of CO2 detectors. Where inadequate, children should be removed from that setting (another room, outside, etc) and remedial action taken to improve the setting.
Recirculation of air between rooms should not be permitted.
Extraction is preferrable to recirculation.
CIBSE professionals should be employed to check and advise on adequate ventilation for occupancy levels.
Face masks should be worn in all indoor areas of a school, including a classroom.
All children should receive training in correct use and good hygiene principles of face mask use.
Face masks should be correctly fitted and to a standard of FFP2 or better.
Communal dining is associated with higher risks of exposure to infection and as face coverings obviously cannot be worn during these times, additional ventilation and social distancing is imperative.
Physical distance must be maintained at all times for most pupils* (exception for specific SEN children)
Classroom density should not exceed those of June 2020 when R was not increasing.
Schools may require additional buildings (temporary or permanent ‘nightingale’ spaces).
Until improved or alternative spaces are provided, rotas and blended learning options must be in place to limit the number of pupils in one class at any one time.
REMOTE LEARNING SUPPORT
Temporary remote learning releases transmission pressure in schools upon the community (reducing R).
Parents should be allowed to conduct a risk assessment based on their household circumstances and select the form of education provision which best suits their requirements (e.g. CDC document).
Those who choose to remain remote educating whilst community transmission rates and scientific based safety measure are not implemented in schools should NOT face fines, coerced de-registrations or pressure to return to in-person education. (Currently in the UK it is ONLY schools in ENGLAND that are fining for non-attendance during a global pandemic. Parents in the Netherlands have just won their court case regarding mandatory in-person education during a pandemic.)
Parents able to temporarily remote educate should be considered eligible for financial support.