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
Schools transmission denial continues
|According to Oldham Council that is ...
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,
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
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
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
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:
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
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
It is clear that the Government continues to ignore
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
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
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
· all staff in higher risk groups to work from home;
· to reduce class sizes by moving to an agreed rota system;
· 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.