Coronavirus: Heads want specific guidance to protect highly vulnerable children

Specialist school heads have written to the government demanding specific guidance to help them protect highly vulnerable pupils with medical conditions from coronavirus.

The Medicine in Specialist Schools steering group wants to know what can be done to protect the 30,000 to 40,000 pupils who have complex health and care needs and have an “elevated risk of mortality”.

In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, one suggestion is to close up to 500 schools which children with medical conditions attend as a precautionary move that will also prevent hospital admissions.

We are concerned the needs of this small but highly vulnerable cohort of children are being missed

Alternatively, the nine school leaders have suggested headteachers could respond to an instruction to identify pupils with elevated risk so their parents could be told to self-isolate with these children at home.

Within 24 hours of “clear guidance” being issued, local authorities, NHS trusts and multi-academy trusts could identify which schools are in this category allowing headteachers to make local decisions about safeguarding.

The letter reads: “It is our belief that whilst the general population of school students may be at low risk whilst the level of transmission in the community multiplies, this sub-group are exceptionally vulnerable, and therefore require a planned intervention to ‘shield’ them from risk as far as is possible, until the ‘herd immunity’ point is reached in due course.”

The heads add “there is currently no clear advice emerging from government about this vulnerable group”.

The letter comes as all 10 special schools in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are closed from today due to the pandemic, the BBC has reported.

The Dixon’s Academies Trust, which runs 12 schools across Bradford and Leeds, is advising parents of pupils with “with chronic respiratory or immunodeficiency conditions to consult a doctor about whether it is safe for their child to attend school”, a statement on their website reads.

“The current advice from Public Health England remains that other pupils and staff can attend school as normal.”

Dominic Wall, part of the steering group and executive principal and SEND lead for Co-op Academies Trust, told Schools Week the emergence of coronavirus “couldn’t have come at a worse time for these most vulnerable children, who have complex health needs that require medically trained staff to support them when they are at school, and who are highly susceptible to infection.”

This sub-group are exceptionally vulnerable and require a planned intervention to ‘shield’ them from risk as far as is possible

Another risk factor, the heads say, is that these pupils are transported to and from school for between 30 minutes and a hour a day on local authority minibus transport or taxis which could expose them to additional risk.

Wall added: “As school leaders we are clear that we must follow Public Health England’s guidance, and do so rigorously every day in our schools; but we are concerned that the needs of this small but highly vulnerable cohort of children are being missed in the current guidance, which is aimed at otherwise healthy children in mainstream schools.”

The letter requests that the authorities use their “influence and authority to act swiftly to safeguard these vulnerable children. Provide guidance to allow head teacher’s in special schools to make local decisions for partial closure or full closure to protect vulnerable children in these fast moving times as we plan to combat the impact of the Covid 19 coronavirus.”

The Department for Education and Public Health England have been approached for comment.

The letter in full: