Covid crisis in schools: we need safety measures now

Schools have been plunged into chaos by the third wave, with thousands of children testing positive and many more self-isolating at home. NEU rep Andy Cunningham argues that the way to keep children safe and stop the disruption is not to abandon mitigation, but to go for a strategy to stop Covid ripping through schools.

Over the last week, the media has been full of reports about children missing school as a result of Covid. The situation in schools at the moment is dire, with 1 in 20 pupils across the country missing school for Covid-related reasons. In some areas that have seen the third wave and the Delta variant hit first, the situation is even more critical. In hard hit areas like Manchester and Lancashire, huge numbers of pupils are missing school and some schools have been forced to shut altogether.

Discussion of this situation in the media has blamed the disruption in education on Covid mitigation measures. In particular, the need for children to isolate if they are identified as close contacts has come under sustained pressure. In this world, getting rid of these rules will mean children can stay in school and everything will be fine.

What proponents of removing the requirement to isolate don’t tell us is that this will mean letting Covid rip through schools. The Government’s strategy here seems to be one of herd immunity by stealth in schools, as identified by Independent SAGE. This strategy ignores the effect of Covid on youngsters, more of whom are getting ill with the Delta variant, as well as the effect on the wider community, many of whom aren’t vaccinated yet or who have a vaccine that is only 60% effective against symptomatic disease.

Lastly, and most seriously, this strategy ignores the effect of Long Covid on children. While the evidence of Long Covid is just emerging, some studies show that as many as half of children still have to deal with Long Covid symptoms four months after becoming infected. The long-term effect of this condition in children is unknown but given the fact that it can include breathing difficulties and ‘brain fog,’ it is reasonable to worry that this condition could have serious detrimental effects on pupils’ future lives.

The current critical situation in schools follows logically from the Government’s lack of serious mitigation measures. The Government ditched the requirement to wear masks in secondary schools back in May, going against SAGE advice and interventions from parents and education unions. While school children in New York will have the benefit of air filters in every classroom, our Government is indicating that it would rather just bury the problem by removing mitigations. The repeated failure of the Tories to provide money, time and a coherent strategy to schools has led to a third wave driven by school children and yet another term of educational disruption.

As a parent, I am very concerned about the potential effect of Long Covid on my children. As a teacher and education worker, I am enraged by the effect of Covid disruption on the lives and education of my pupils. This disruption isn’t inevitable though: what we need are evidence-based mitigation measures in school, including wearing masks and a huge investment in useful hardware like room ventilators and carbon dioxide detectors. We also need to dump the discredited and inaccurate LFD tests that are eroding confidence in safety measures and make weekly or twice weekly PCR tests available to everyone in schools. Lastly, we need to control the spread of the virus in the community by not pretending everything is ok and it’s all in the rear view mirror.

 

The Zero Covid campaign is holding an open meeting on the Covid crisis in schools on Monday 5 July at 6pm. Find out more.

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