We were pleased to submit evidence to the APPG Coronavirus on 28/1/2021
This is the first part of the evidence we submitted. There is a second part which includes the personal stories of 10 of our activists, explaining their struggles to work with their children’s schools to ensure better Covid safety for all, due to inadequate government guidelines. For privacy reasons, due to the sensitive nature of the stories and the fact it involves children, we will not post the full content on here but will post some of the stories on our blog in the coming days, anonymised (names were provided to the APPG). Some of the activists are available for press interviews are willing to use their full names for that purpose.
Large numbers of children, young people and parents are extremely worried about inadequate Covid19 safety measures in English schools, which are out of step with what is done in most other countries, where more stringent measures have been put in place in in educational settings. There has been too little attention to how an airborne virus spreads. There have been some loud voices dismissing requests for more stringent measures to contain the virus in schools, in the name of children’s rights. Education is crucial, and we agree that in this pandemic the needs of children and families are often overlooked, particularly in England. But putting children first must not translate into giving up on containing the virus in schools.
Current guidance in England allows schools to operate bubbles of 300, ignore social distancing in classrooms and often is interpreted as meaning pupils should be actively forbidden from using face masks (see case studies). These are not isolated incidents. They are a systemic problem caused by the school guidance mentioning potential damage to teaching from mask use, without any evidence. The approach by the Department for Education also appears to be based on outdated science regarding children’s vulnerability to catch and transmit the virus.
But protecting children’s rights and ensuring a safe and sustainable education provision for all actually means putting in place stringent safety measures in schools, aligned with those required in all other settings where households mix. Anything else is openly discriminatory towards children or families who are clinically vulnerable and at higher risk of a negative outcome, as well as clinically vulnerable teachers. In the period September to December 2020, many clinically vulnerable families had no other option but to reluctantly deregister their children to carry out (non-elective) home education. Others withdrew their children temporarily. Some were supported by the schools while others were not, and many were being threatened with fines and prosecution (see case studies).
Many other children that did attend schools when they were fully open had their education disrupted by several bouts of self-isolation; there are indications this is still happening in schools that are partly open now with a particularly concerning situation in special schools, which remain fully open without sufficient safety measures. But if measures to contain an airborne virus were more stringent, it would be spreading less effectively, and fewer episodes of forced self-isolation would occur. This is particularly important given the uncertainty caused by the new variant.
We therefore ask decision makers to ensure that the latest scientific evidence is used when making decisions about schools settings, which we believe based on our current understanding means supporting better measures for schools, to be put in place as soon as possible (without waiting for a full re-opening, whenever that may be):
- 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)
- Clear instructions to parents to keep children who are ill at home (as per original government guidance)
- Temporary remote education allowed and supported for all families able to do so, and particularly for those where there are clinically vulnerable persons.
Whilst safeguarding of vulnerable children and protecting mental health is always a priority, none of the above proposals negate this. Many Covid-vulnerable children (we don’t really know who will be vulnerable to Covid or long-Covid at 15% of cases), or children with family members who are, and those suffering from pre-existing mental health issues (including some of our own children) are being failed by the current guidance because they are not given reason to feel safe in school. Some of these children being failed already had a disrupted education before the pandemic.
Provisions also need to be made, and funded, to mitigate the down sides of school partial closures (for example, why not allow and even encourage children’s activities outside in small groups and safe outdoor, distanced sports such as tennis right now, as a way to reduce isolation and improve mental health via physical activity? This is currently permitted in Scotland but not England). In our experience, the lack of safety measures in schools, as well as the pandemic being poorly controlled, can in itself trigger anxiety in children and in parents, particularly for families with clinically vulnerable family members. Those wishing to defend the current weak Covid19 guidelines for schools have no right to dismiss this as a non-issue or attribute it to excessive parental anxiety.
Explaining to our children why the advice of HANDS, FACE, SPACE is in effect ignored within school buildings is extremely difficult. Children listen to and observe this advice in all other indoor settings. It is illogical to expect that parents and older children in particular will suddenly believe the virus behaves differently within a school building compared to other settings. And you will know that children need consistent messaging from adults and parents. Children in other countries are following much more stringent Covid19 safety guidelines without problems, and there is no evidence of any harm to teaching.
 e.g. playgrounds closed in the first wave; the “rule of six” in England included children, unlike Scotland, which made it impossible for two families of more than 3 to meet, even in the safety of an outdoor setting; outdoor sports for children including e.g. tennis forbidden in England.
Princeton study of over half a million people in India, finding that children play an important role in the spread of Covid19, 30 September 2020;
UK government’s own Children’s Task and Finish Group, 17 December 2020;
The Lancet Infectious Diseases Study, January 2021
Medical Journal of Australia study on children and schools, October 2020
Media coverage of Lancet Infectious Diseases Study of 131 countries showing a 24% surge in the R following re-opening of schools;
 At the very least, we ask decision makers to consider optionality of school attendance (in the absence of serious safeguarding concerns) as a simply way to allow parents some freedom of choice over the level of risk that is right for their family. This is currently common in the US and guidance is provided to parents on assessing the relative risks in order to make such decisions.
 Our suggestions for improvements to the current guidance are based on the School’s Report from Independent Sage, the advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the current advice from Public Health England (PHE) relating to measures required in UK indoor settings and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC); Also see this blog on the British Medical Journal.