Wednesday 28 October 2020

Fully open schools are unsafe - union action needed so that the facts can no longer be ignored

A fortnight ago, I posted an update about why the continuing denial of Covid transmission in schools must be challenged – and not just in words but through action by school trade unions. As infection rates – and consequently deaths - continue to rise, the need to take action has become ever more urgent.

Schools transmission denial continues

According to Oldham Council that is ...
A tweet from Oldham Council this week has brought the illogical denial of Covid transmission in schools to its logical conclusion. The Council, understandably, wants to warn parents about the risks of transmission between children in households, especially in an area with such high community infection rates. But, in doing so, it falsely claims that schools are somehow “COVID-secure” as if, by magic, the virus refuses to enter the school gates!

Yet this nonsensical tweet simply sums up the dangerous nonsense that continues to come from the Department for Education – that it’s “safe” to continue to pack over 30 children and adults into poorly ventilated classrooms. It flies in the face of the growing evidence that airborne transmission will inevitably be taking place in those conditions, of the health risks that this creates for school staff, and how that leads to further transmission back into the school’s wider local community.

Outbreaks increasing across all school sectors

Firstly, as the latest slides from independent SAGE helpfully summarized, while the Government is pretending that schools are continuing to operate normally, the reality is that over 400,000 pupils (around 4%) of state school pupils have been having to self-isolate owing to positive cases and outbreaks in their schools. In some areas, as many as a third of secondary school students are at home. 

But this isn’t just a secondary school issue either. The latest PHE Report shows that there have been well over 1000 confirmed Covid-19 clusters or outbreaks in schools since the start of term, across all sectors. Indeed, in the latest week reported upon, it has been the primary sector that has had the highest number of reported incidents.

It’s important to stress those primary school cases because, up to now, the emphasis has been largely placed on the risks of viral transmission from teenagers and young adults, rather than from younger children. However, the latest modelling from the ONS shows that the estimated positivity of primary age children has now risen to levels similar to those estimated for secondary school aged children.

Of course, school staff themselves are also being affected. BBC News have just reported on analysis from the North West Association of the Directors of Children's Services, showing that in mid-October Bury, Knowsley, Liverpool and Manchester all had more than 40% of schools with confirmed cases. Those figures included 710 teachers with a positive test – from about 2000 in total across England.

Sadly, it’s those adult staff who are most likely to be vulnerable to serious ill-health from the virus and those infection rates will inevitably start to translate into school staff deaths as well.

In the areas with the highest infection rates, staff and student absence is already causing a chaotic situation. Schools are left without key staff at short notice, staff being expected to provide learning both for those in class and those at home – but without knowing who will be where from week to week. An agreed planned rota system is urgently needed to cut across this chaos and pressure.

Children transmit the virus – further medical evidence

For too long, an assumption has been made that children, particularly primary aged children, do not have a significant role in spreading the virus. But the claim increasingly fails to stand up to scientific analysis.

Of course, many children are asymptomatic, but that does not mean that they don’t transmit the virus. However, the fact that they often don’t exhibit symptoms has also meant that children have often been excluded from testing systems that are being rationed to those that do. That has helped hide transmission via children in our inadequate tracking and tracing systems.

As the Canadian Medical Association Journal warns, “Children have been ‘dramatically underrepresented’ in COVID-19 case counts because they are less likely than adults to show symptoms and therefore may escape detection … Especially early in the pandemic, ‘there were a lot of biased studies, and people were really uncritical of that.’

As the article mentions, there might be a biological reason why younger children are less affected in that “the virus uses angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors in the nasal mucosa as a doorway into the cells, and studies have found that young children have a lower density of those receptors”. However, it also points out that “nobody knows if their poor adherence to physical distancing and other precautions cancel out any biological advantage”

A recent paper by Dr Zoe Hyde in the Medical Journal of Australia gives an overview of evidence that she concludes shows that “children may be more susceptible than originally thought and play a role in community transmission”.

While the paper points out that “Children appear more likely to be asymptomatic and given that the duration of viral shedding may be shorter in asymptomatic cases, it is possible that children may be infectious for a shorter period. However, the viral load of asymptomatic and symptomatic cases does not appear to differ, and infectious virus is readily cultured from both. Importantly, the likelihood of successfully culturing virus is unrelated to age. Children therefore have the potential to play a role in community transmission, particularly given the large number of contacts children have in close contact settings such as childcare centres and schools”.

Dr Hyde points to a number of outbreaks internationally where the evidence indicates that transmission among children was a significant factor. However, a more recently documented Israeli investigation into the role of schools in spreading infection provides some of the strongest evidence of all. Israel, like the UK, has seen a sharp rise in infections since schools reopened in September.

The sample size used in the Ministry of Health investigation makes it a far more reliable source than some of the early international investigations into school-based transmission. Of the 678,000 children under the age of 17 tested for COVID-19 tests between January and September 24, over half showed no symptoms. However, 8% of the children returned a positive test. This was the highest rate for any age-group, suggesting the rising positivity in the ONS data here in England is only to be expected:

The investigation was also able to track the course of specific outbreaks and show how schoolchildren were part of the transmission pathways.

Significantly, the study also supported the prognosis that there may be a number of people, including children, who appear to act as ‘super-spreaders’. Across Israel, 350 people were identified who had been the source of infection of at least 10 other people. Of these, 17 (5%) were children. Seven children each infected 10 people, three children each infected 12 people, and one child infected 24 people.

Rota learning to allow smaller class sizes is now urgently needed

Northern Ireland and Wales (even if in a very limited way) have, at least, implemented some element of a “circuit breaker” that applies to schools this half-term. However, across the UK, schools will be returning to full classes and, as the facts above have shown, further school outbreaks.

Instead of chaotic absences and rising dangers to public health as a whole, schools should be returning to the reduced class sizes we had before the summer, at the very least in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas where infection rates, and so the risk of transmission, are the highest.

With planning and consultation, staff and school communities could arrive at an agreed rota system that takes into account the additional workload pressures of supporting children at home and at school, making sure priority medical and social needs are catered for, as well as the protection of those staff and parents at greatest risk from the virus.

For example, a system where class sizes are halved, with most children in school one week then at home the next, could significantly reduce transmission risks by reducing the number of contacts and allowing physical distancing to be put in place which simply cannot happen in a class of thirty. This is of even greater importance in the winter months where providing adequate ventilation is going to be even more of an issue. At the same time, it would still make sure children weren’t permanently without the social interaction and support that a school environment can provide.

As demanded in the motion below, any parent who has to take time off work owing to childcare pressures arising from school closure should also be granted full-pay while they do so. Government should also fund the provision of additional staffing, drawing on the significant pool of supply staff looking for employment, and additional teaching spaces to minimize the time and numbers of children who may need to learn at home. 

Action must be urgently taken so that facts can’t be ignored

The weight of evidence is now so strong that a Government genuinely interested in protecting public health could not ignore it. But this Government will not act unless forced to do so. Contrast the way it brushed aside Andy Burnham’s appeals for more funding for Manchester compared to the way it had to shift over GCSE exam grading when young people started to organise opposition.

It is clear that the Government continues to ignore reality. Lancashire councillors reported that when they spoke up in negotiations about transmission in schools and workplaces being the real problem, they were told by Government officials that these were “off-limits”. So Lancashire is now in Tier 3, without adequate financial support for workers affected, but also with school safety continuing to be ignored.

As reported on 'Lancs Live'

For the sake of staff and for the safety of our communities too, unions should call members together and put the case for urgent strike ballots to be started without any further delay, starting with members in the worst-hit Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas.

The National Education Union has already said that it will support individual school groups that request such a ballot. However, staff will feel more confident to take action if they are acting alongside other school groups in a collective battle to call on Local Authorities and the Government to meet our demands. Even the announcement that the NEU were starting those ballots alone would be a lever on Ministers to change course and act on school safety.

Keeping our Schools and Communities Safe

The following motion was agreed by the Lancashire NEU Branch Committee and will be discussed further in the Branch once schools return from the half-term break:

Lancashire NEU Tier 3 Motion - Keeping our Schools and Communities Safe

Our members have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic and will continue to do so to support pupils. However, with local infection rates continuing to rise, and clear evidence of the part played by schools and colleges in that increase, they cannot continue to operate safely with full classes. Action must now be taken to make sure all education workplaces are only open in conditions that are safe for students, staff and our local communities.

Local escalation to Tier 3, without addressing the issue of school and community safety, must be met with an escalation in the union’s response. Therefore, we agree to:

Call an urgent emergency meeting of all NEU members and seeks the following measures:

1) Call on schools and employers to put the following into immediate effect:

· all staff in higher risk groups to work from home;

· to reduce class sizes by moving to an agreed rota system; and

· for all staff to be regularly tested;

2) Call on Government to provide funding for additional resources, spaces and staffing, as well as full pay for parents who must remain at home to provide childcare;

If these measures are not secured, we will ask NEU Action Officers to conduct industrial action ballots as required.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Denial of Covid transmission in schools must be challenged

The second Covid wave is accelerating globally. In the UK, infection rates in many areas are now at such high levels that the "R rate" is well above 1 so that the rate of increase continues to climb yet further. 

Urgent action is needed to slash onward transmission but the response from the UK Government is only a confused and unfunded tiered lockdown that closes pubs but leaves schools and most workplaces open. It will leave affected workers in the worst-hit areas unable to pay their bills yet does little to convince anyone that it is actually seriously tackling viral transmission.

Even the Government's SAGE scientists seem unconvinced that Johnson's latest proposals are going to have the required effect. The SAGE minutes from 21st September warned that "the rate of increase in infections is expected to accelerate in the near future as the impact of school, college and university openings, and policy changes with respect to return to workplaces, and entertainment and leisure venues, filter through". Of course, that's exactly what has since taken place.

The main incidence of outbreaks is in schools

The latest figures from Public Health England (PHE) show that the main incidence of outbreaks is in educational settings and workplaces - not pubs! Figures from the previous week's Report also showed that, while college and university outbreaks are also significant, by far the largest numbers of confirmed clusters or outbreaks are in school settings:

Just to emphasise that this isn't just a UK finding, Le Monde has similarly recently reported that the main incidence of outbreaks in France is also in educational settings.

Teenagers and young adults have the highest test positivity

The PHE Reports, alongside a further set of figures from ONS, confirm that the highest test positivity rates are amongst 10-19 and 20-29 year-olds, not older people. 

The ONS Report is clear in its conclusion that: "highest rates appear among older teenagers and young adults (school Year 12 to age 24), where rates have grown very rapidly in the most recent weeks. The second highest rates are seen in the secondary school age group (school Year 7 to school Year 11). Increases are also apparent across the other age groups, but to a much lesser extent"

This provides important confirmation that, while the elderly may be at the greatest risk of serious ill-health and death, it is young adults and teenagers that are likely to be the main source of viral transmission within communities. 

With limited testing in the UK targeted to those who are symptomatic, this important finding was previously missed because most younger people show only mild or no obvious symptoms. It must no longer be ignored.

No more denial - schools spread the virus

The National Education Union have produced a video where Kevin Courtney summarises these figures. It makes the point that PHE have stressed that viral airborne transmission risks are greatest in "poorly ventilated spaces if individuals are in the room for an extended period of time" - which, as Kevin correctly states, is a perfect description of our classrooms, where thirty or more individuals share one room for lessons.

Yet politicians, both Tory and Labour, alongside too many of their scientific advisers, seem to be in denial about the role of schools in viral transmission.

SAGE, in their latest published September minutes, advised (before the latest data had been released of course) that "it is still not clear to what extent (if any) schools magnify transmission in communities rather than reflect the prevalence within the community". Now, of course, high community rates will cause higher prevalence in schools, as more infected individuals introduce the virus into schools from their communities. But how can there be any scientific basis for suggesting that the virus won't then be further transmitted within packed classrooms and then back out into the community again? 

If test positivity suggests some young people may well be carrying the virus, and they are sitting together in classes without social distancing, usually without masks, and generally with only limited ventilation, it's surely inevitable that schools WILL act as "institutional amplifiers" of the virus.

The PHE and ONS data above only adds to other global research that confirms that there is every reason to expect that the virus shows no respect for what kind of environment it finds itself within. Rather than reproduce it in full here, the threads updated by Dr Zoe Hyde on Twitter list medical research papers that have concluded that:

* Adults and children are equally likely to be infected;

* Children transmit the virus at clinically meaningful rates - perhaps equally to adults.

Those findings are backed up by swab testing results that show:

* The amount of viral RNA detected in swabs from symptomatic children was similar to (or higher than) that of adults;

* Asymptomatic and symptomatic cases were also found to have a similar viral load.

For too long, subjective wishes for schools to stay open have outweighed the objective facts about what's needed to prevent the rising "second wave". For some politicians, that's driven by the cold economics of providing childcare for the UK workforce, for others a more genuine wish for children to carry on receiving an education. 

But if rising infection rates continue to drive more school outbreaks and consequent self-isolation of staff and children alike, those wishes won't be met! 

It's time to accept that schools, especially secondary schools and 16-19 colleges, are significantly contributing to accelerating infection rates, sadly now becoming rising death rates as well. 

Time for unions to take action

Unless serious plans are put in place to provide safe learning in schools - not to mention safe working conditions for staff, especially those at higher risk that could be working at home providing distance learning instead - they will continue to drive the disastrous spread of Covid-19.

Existing steps being taken in schools, largely limited to leaking "bubbles" and extra cleaning, are just not sufficient. Alongside a properly functioning system of testing, the serious action required is to ensure schools operate only with smaller class sizes. That's the best way to minimise transmission and increase social distancing within the school environment, just as we had in place in the "first wave" of the virus from March.

But Boris Johnson's confused lockdown announcements, which failed to even mention educational settings, show that the time for just appealing to the Government to 'do the right thing' is long past. They're not listening.  

It may be worse than "not listening" - they may be actively ignoring the evidence on schools

The NEU now has to act to defend public health where the Government won't. Mass members' meetings on Zoom should be called in the lockdown areas, where the risks are greatest, and the case put that action ballots now need to be started to force the Government to act. The arguments - as in Kevin Courtney's video above - are clear, now what's needed is for the Union leaderships to give that lead.

Trade unions and local communities need to demand their voices are heard - because they know far better than the Conservative government what steps are really required. School communities should decide how best to operate priority rotas for children who need to attend school and how best to operate distance learning for those who can be supported at home. 

Trade unions must use their collective strength to force the Government to take the action it should already have put in place, with extra funding to support online learning, additional staff and teaching spaces, a functioning test-and-trace system, and full pay for those who have to remain at home through workplace closure or to support children learning from home.