Einstein is supposed to have said that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”.
While it probably wasn’t Einstein who said it, many current
scientific experts are warning that the UK Government is about to ignore that
adage and repeat the mistakes it has made previously over fully reopening
schools. We must assess their advice, and the available evidence, and set our
own clear demands over how and when more students can return to face-to-face
teaching, without risking another repeat surge in infection rates.
If our demands are not met, then trade unions must use their collective strength to make sure Ministers are not able to put health, safety, and livelihoods at risk once again. As we did in January, we must resist any unsafe, unprepared, premature school opening plan.
Assess the evidence – and challenge unsafe conclusions
from Government backers
In recent appearances on both BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 5 Live, epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani from the
University of London has outlined the scientific evidence that the Government
should be basing their actions upon. Her conclusion, supported by those also reached
by both Independent
SAGE (UK) and the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (US), is that schools should not open
further until infection rates are lower. All of them call for wider opening to be on a phased basis reflecting local community transmission rates, and, even then, only alongside appropriate
additional mitigation measurements being put in place, particularly mask wearing, ventilation controls
and reduced pupil numbers.
Of course, there will be other scientists arguing differently. On the Radio 5 Live recording, Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of one of the modelling subgroups of SAGE, claims that “the evidence suggests that really schools aren’t contributing significantly to community transmission, particularly primary schools”. His arguments were strongly challenged by Dr Gurdasani, who pointed out that his argument was contradicted by SAGE’s own data.
The Government will claim that their reopening plans have scientific backing. But we must question where that backing is coming from and on what evidence it is based. For example, a January 2021 ONS Report made the much-publicised claim that school staff were at no greater risk than other occupations. It was shown by Dr Sarah Rasmussen to be erroneous. The Office for Statistics Regulation have since written to the ONS about the weaknesses in their conclusions and analysis.
I am summarising below the evidence which I believe can be relied on for constructing a safe plan for a phased return to fully open schools.
Do schools and school-aged children contribute
significantly to community transmission?
The fact that schools are “vectors for transmission, causing
the virus to spread between households” should not really be a debate. After
all, it was Boris Johnson himself who admitted this when changing his plans over
school reopening at the start of January.
i) SAGE evidence
In case there is any doubt, it’s worth starting with the evidence presented to the Prime Minister by his own SAGE advisers at the end of last year. They concluded that:
“Accumulating evidence is consistent with
increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open”
The ONS Infection Survey modelling for December,
when schools were fully open, and new variants on the rise, showed that school
aged children showed the highest positivity rates of all age groups.
“Children and young people are more likely to bring
the virus into the household than those aged 17+”
“Young people (aged 2-16) are much more likely than
those aged 17+ to be the first case in their household (see figures for ‘Relative
5) “2-16 year olds are more than twice as likely to pass on the virus within their household compared to people aged 17+” (see figures for ‘Relative Transmissibility’)
ii) Public Health England Data – and transmission
amongst Primary Aged Children
The weekly PHE Influenza Surveillance graphs provide further evidence for the link between school opening and increased transmission. As pointed out by SAGE’s Task and Finish Group Report (above), there is a correlation between confirmed Covid-19 cases and school holidays, with rates dipping during the half-term school closure, for example.
This risk of viral transmission in Primary and Early Years
settings where pupil numbers are too high is also borne out in the latest positivity rates
reported in the latest ONS
Infection Survey. Thanks to the present lockdown measures, positivity rates
have been falling across all age groups. However, the rate of fall has been
slowest in the “Age 2 to School Year 6” age group.
It’s important to recognise from SAGE’s Task and Finish Group report
that, while the estimated rates of test positivity and External Exposure are
highest of all for secondary-aged children, the rates of Transmissibility are
the same across the whole 2-16 age group. In addition, while primary-aged test
positivity and External Exposure rates may have been lower than those of secondary-aged children,
they were still found to be higher than those of adults aged 17+.
In short, unions and parents should not accept the argument that there
are minimal risks associated with the full reopening of primary schools. This is not
backed up by the UK data.
iii) International Data – and the new variants
One argument that will be made by those arguing for a
premature unsafe school reopening will be that “there is no firm evidence of
school transmission”. But the reason
that UK conclusions are having to be based in good part on correlation, rather
than clear cause, is because of the failure to have reliable working track and
trace systems that could have provided that UK evidence!
However, there are many international studies that have provided
such additional evidence, evidence which must not be ignored in the UK. I have posted
links to some of these international studies in previous articles.
A recent British
Medical Journal article reports on further international evidence from
Israel and Italy. Both raise particular concerns about the greater
transmissibility of the new variants of the virus amongst young children.
Israeli figures suggest that the spread of the “UK variant
B1.1.7” has been linked to a sharp rise
in new daily cases accounted for by children aged under 10. Similar concerns have
been raised by a study in northern Italy where 10% of a village’s population of
1400 were reported to have tested positive for the virus. 60% of those positive tests were from children of primary or infant school age. These young children are thought to
have infected other family members.
This potential of greater transmissibility of the new variants amongst younger children is another reason to proceed with caution when it comes to reopening primary schools fully.
Vaccination must be considered separately to transmission
The UK Government must ensure that infection levels are much
lower before moving to release lockdown, including starting to fully reopen
schools, or we will just see a repeat of the surges seen when this was done
Dr Gurdasani made these key points in her presentation to
the BBC on 12 February:
1) It’s clearly very welcome that lockdown measures have helped lower the Reproduction Number ( R ) beneath 1.0 but the latest ONS Infection Survey still estimates that 1 in 80 people in England are infected and the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospital is still higher than the April 2020 peak.
Vaccinated individuals may still transmit the
virus, so measures to decrease and maintain low transmission rates must be in
place. These must be considered separately, and in parallel, to extending the
level of vaccination across the population. Remember that the vaccine is not
yet licensed for use with children.
High levels of transmission also provide more
opportunities for mutation and replication of new variants, potentially
undermining vaccination response.
A good test, trace, isolate and support system
must be in place to address outbreaks and maintain low levels of infections. (‘Support’
includes financial help for those isolating or stay at home to provide
If the Government adopts such a careful
‘elimination’ strategy, we could return to more normal lives, as seen in e.g.
Australia, but, if they don’t, then we may have to endure repeated lockdowns
and restrictions for years to come.
We cannot only focus on Covid deaths, again Office
for National Statistics evidence confirms that around 10% of those infected
are also suffering from “Long Covid” with a range of symptoms remaining after 12
7) Further ONS data on Long-Covid estimates around 300,000 individuals are presently suffering from “Long Covid” symptoms after 5 weeks and that includes a significant proportion (over 1 in 7) of school-aged children.
So when will it be safe to start reopening schools fully?
A range of different bodies have reached the same
conclusions about what needs to be done. This should form the basis of a trade
union position, with unions also using their collective strength to put these
demands into practice, if necessary, to defend safety:
i) Independent SAGE – “Data not Dates” – A
I have previously
reported on Independent SAGE’s proposals for a tiered reopening of schools,
based on the case rates in a local authority area. In summary, their Traffic Light
• Schools in a local authority area should begin to reopen
when R is less than 1 and the incidence falls below 100 per 100,000 confirmed
cases per week.
• When the rate is between 50 and 100 cases per 100k, schools
should employ ‘red light’ safeguards, including:
Reduced class sizes either through prioritising
the return of certain year groups and/or through a rota system within years
whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online
(with necessary provision of IT, broadband etc);
Wearing of masks in all classes for all school
students, primary and secondary.
• When the rate is between 10 and 50 cases per 100k, schools
should employ ‘amber light’ safeguards. These will allow all pupils to access
full time in-person classes. However, mask wearing and banning of assemblies
will be maintained.
• When the rate is below 10 cases per 100k per week, schools
should employ ‘green light’ safeguards. These will remove all safeguards bar
mask wearing in crowded spaces, basic social distancing and hygiene measures.
Strategy for Phased Mitigation – Masks, Those At Higher Risk, Vaccination
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has just
released a similar
set of recommendations to those proposed by Independent SAGE.
Again, the CDC propose a phased approach based on the same “Traffic
Light” levels of community transmission. They also stress the requirement for five key mitigation strategies to also be in place. These must be replicated in any serious plan for wider opening in the UK:
Universal and correct use of masks
Handwashing and respiratory etiquette
Cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities
Contact tracing in combination with isolation
It’s important to note that the CDC are clear that “masks
should be worn at all times, by all persons in school facilities, with
exceptions for certain persons who, because of a disability, cannot wear a mask
or wear a mask safely, or for certain settings such as while eating or drinking.
Masks should be required in all classroom and non-classroom settings, including
hallways, school offices, gyms, etc.”. This applies across ALL school sectors.
Staff should also remember that UK Legislation (The
Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992, Reg.4) states
clearly that “Every employer SHALL ensure that suitable personal protective
equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their
health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk
has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more
The CDC also make clear that “students, teachers, and staff
who are at high risk of severe illness or who live with people at high risk
should be provided virtual options”.
On Vaccination, they state that: “Teachers and school staff
hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential
occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. In order to support safe school reopening,
state, territorial, local, and tribal (STLT) officials should consider giving
high priority to teachers in early phases of vaccine distribution”.
“Access to vaccination should nevertheless not be considered
a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction. Even after
teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools need to continue mitigation measures
for the foreseeable future, including requiring masks in schools and physical
iii) Parents United – Open Letter, Ventilation,
Close the Digital Divide
The 'Parents United' campaign, with the backing of some of the
scientists mentioned above, have issued an open
letter that draws on much of the evidence outlined above and calls for a
similar tiered approach to that recommended by Independent SAGE and the CDC in
It also raises these important additional demands:
- mitigate risk in high infection rate areas with smaller
class sizes to reduce contacts, and the risk of airborne transmission. This
could be achieved by the use of rotas, or by hiring more spaces and more
mental-health and education staff.
- acknowledge airborne transmission as a significant route
of transmission of Covid-19, and provide school-specific guidance and funding for
mitigation, which must be drawn up in consultation with aerosol science
specialists and building ventilation consultants. Mitigations likely to be suggested include
reduced class sizes, increased mask use, installation of ventilation systems or
the use of portable HEPA filters, and C02 monitoring.
- continue to disapply section 444 of the Education Act (so
that parents are not fined over a lack of school attendance owing to Coronavirus
health concerns) and ensure that a comprehensive, fully resourced online
learning program is available to every family who wish to continue supporting
their child’s learning from home.
- close the digital divide by providing laptops and
broadband to children who need them to support learning from home - whether or
not this is by choice.
iv) Infection rates not yet low enough in most Local Authorities
even for partial opening
While infection rates thankfully continue to fall, if the “10/50/100 cases per 100,000” tiered "Traffic Light" criteria are applied in the UK, then no Nation and no English Region is yet (on 15/02/21) even in the ‘red light’ zone of under 100 per 100,000 cases over a 7-day period.
The latest official data can be found from https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/cases.
It shows that it’s possible that by early March, the date that the UK Government may be looking at to reopen schools fully, some Upper Tier Local Authorities (UTLAs) could
be in a position to safely open – but only at an initial phase of reduced
numbers. Even that depends on other mitigation measures to reduce the risks
of transmission also being in place.
As things stand with a month to go , as the map on the UK Government Coronavirus Data website shows, infection rates in over 3/4 of UTLAs are still too high even for the partial opening suggested by Independent SAGE, and others, once a rate of 100/100,000 is reached.
The NEU must demand no school or college reopens fully unless our
demands are met
Earlier in the pandemic, the NEU clearly set out ‘5 tests’ for
Government to meet before schools could safely reopen. These were not in place
sufficiently in September and, thanks to Government failure, our schools and
colleges DID “become hot spots for Covid-19”, just as the NEU had warned would happen in our "5 tests".
In January, to avoid our members facing a serious and
imminent danger, we had to urge members to invoke their “Section 44” rights to a
safe workplace. We now urgently need to put forward a new set of “5 tests” that must be met if we are to avoid
those serious dangers being repeated once again.
A new set of ‘5 tests’, based on the analysis above, could be:
Test 1 : Lower numbers of Covid-19 cases
No wider opening until Covid-19 cases in a Local Authority
are securely beneath the rate of 100 per 1000,000 population over a 7-day
period. No more than 50% in-school attendance* until Covid-19 cases are securely beneath the rate of 50
per 1000,000 population over a 7-day period.
Test 2 : Mitigation Strategies must be in place: Social Distancing,
We insist not only on secure distancing and bubble protocols, but also, given the greater knowledge that now exists on the significance
of airborne transmission, adequate ventilation and C02
monitoring as well as mask wearing in classrooms in primary and secondary
Test 3 : Test, Trace, Isolate, Support
Guarantees that a test, trace, isolate and support system will
be in place in order to respond to outbreaks, maintain low levels of infections
and support those who have to isolate or stay at home to provide childcare. We also demand additional financial
support to ensure schools have the additional staffing and resources needed for a safe phased return and to put in place a recovery curriculum that meets the needs of all students.
Test 4 : Whole school strategy
In addition to the overarching demands in these new ‘5 tests’, we insist on clear agreed risk assessments that ensure acceptable measures are in place in every workplace.
Test 5 : Protection for the vulnerable
Students and staff who are at high risk of severe illness,
or who live with people at high risk should be able to work from home, using
the teaching and learning methods developed over the last year.
This time, for the sake of the health, safety and welfare of staff, students, and our wider school communities, we must insist these tests are fully met.
* I have amended the wording of "Test One" from the initial "
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