'Data not dates' has already become a slogan amongst NEU and parent activists campaigning to stop an unsafe return to fully open schools. It's a phrase that has also been used in an important consultation document released today by Independent SAGE.
We mean that, rather than coming up with a date for return that is driven largely by political and economic considerations, not on educational and health grounds, then instead, as Independent SAGE state:
• The timing of the reopening should be driven by data not by dates. That is, it should occur as soon as it is possible to do so without leading to a loss of control over infection rates.
• The return to school should be phased rather than all at once, with careful monitoring of the effects of initial moves and with the further lifting of safeguards contingent on falling local infection levels.
School numbers remain too high even under 'lockdown'
Undoubtedly, the ongoing lockdown is hard for many families. As staff will know from their own classes, some young people are struggling with the pressures they are under. However, as the document points out "these problems were not necessarily due to school closures but to more general aspects of the pandemic such as the fear of illness and uncertainties about the future". Independent SAGE make a number of recommendations, including the funding of both mental health support in schools and research into the effects of "Long COVID".
A discussion can be had about whether the consultation document's description of the "lifelong economic and psychological harms of closure" is overstated in a UK context, given that schools have in fact remained open to keyworker and vulnerable children and that school staff have been working extremely hard to support remote learning as well.
Independent SAGE are aware of this and add in a footnote that "the term closure, while widely used, is potentially misleading given that ... some five times more children are attending in-person classes than during the first lockdown".Indeed, many NEU Officers remain concerned that schools in their area continue to operate with pupil numbers that are too large given present infection rates. The consequences can be seen in the latest figures from Public Health England for COVID-19 outbreaks. In SEN and Early Years, settings where Headteachers have been most under pressure to remain open to as many pupils as possible, the levels of outbreaks are rising.
Again, Independent SAGE make some important observations and proposals:
• The definition of essential worker is so loosely drawn as to require many more people to attend workplaces than in the first lockdown.
• In combination with tighter regulation, there must be greater support for people to stay at home. This includes a legal duty on employers to allow staff to work from home if possible, and where that is not possible, easier access to furlough payments which, at present, are denied to many.
• The school environment should be transformed to minimise the risk of infection transmission. This should include, where possible, use of outside spaces, enabling adequate ventilation in all classrooms; free provision of good quality face coverings for all pupils at primary and secondary levels.
So, while looking ahead for the right conditions to be able to again fully open schools, the immediate necessity is to make sure that schools aren't acting as "vectors for transmission" right now. The joint union checklist remains vitally important for protecting staff and community safety. This is even more important in areas that are 'hotspots' for the new variants.
Our rights under Section 44 may need to be called on again - both now in some schools - and, certainly more widely, if an unsafe attempt to fully open schools is imposed by any administration.
What are the criteria for a "safe return" to fully open schools?
A key discussion for school staff and their unions has to be to agree the public health criteria, access to vaccination, and school environment safeguards that we accept are sufficient to allow a 'safe return'. If we do not feel these have been met, then we again need to apply our individual rights together to insist on a safe workplace for staff - and for the communities we support.
Independent SAGE have suggested the following - stressing these are not a 'blueprint' but some points for discussion:• As reopening will inevitably increase the R number, schools should reopen in a careful and phased manner, akin to the ‘traffic light system’ in Norway.
• 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 estimated cases per day, which corresponds to about 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. These include such measures as reduced class sizes either through prioritising the return of certain year groups (e.g. early years and examination years) and/or through a rota system within years whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online; banning mass activities and assemblies; wearing of masks in all classes for all school students, primary and secondary. It is important to stress that, for this approach to work, the provision of computers, Wi-Fi connections and study spaces for all students becomes all the more urgent.
• 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.
For now, rates remain too high even for 'red light' safeguards
I'll end this post with the latest figures from the Government's own website for confirmed Coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the most recent 7-day period.
Thankfully, infection rates are now falling. However, if the Independent SAGE criteria are applied, the figures make clear that, as of today (05/02/21), no Nation and no English Region is yet in a position to open even at an initial phase of reduced numbers and mask wearing in both primary and secondary classes. The infection rates are certainly far higher than could allow schools to fully open. Indeed, they are also too high for the levels of attendance we have right now in too many schools under supposed "partial opening".
That's why we have to insist on "data, not dates" - and use our collective strength to do so if we need to - for the sake of our staff, our students and our communities.