Scientists have warned the government’s back to school plans are “reckless” and allow the “mass infection of children”.
An open letter, published by the British Medical Journal today, accuses education secretary Gavin Williamson of endangering the health of hundreds of thousands of pupils and not following medical advice.
The letter, signed by scientists, parents and educators, proposes a nine point plan of action (see below in full) to keep children safe.
They included reintroducing masks in the classroom, offering vaccines to children above 12 and reinstating bubbles to reduce the risk of Covid in schools.
The letter highlights the risk Covid presents for children and states there have been over 2,300 hospitalisation of under-18s in England due to Covid in the last two months alone – while an estimated 34,000 children are living with long Covid already.
“Long COVID can be associated with multi-system disease in some children, including persistent cognitive symptoms . . . Allowing mass infection of children is therefore reckless.”.
Last week the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that it is of “paramount importance” that “classroom-based learning continues” across Europe.
It advised schools to use smaller class sizes and physical distancing to “minimise the risk of Covid-19 and the spread of difference variants”.
The letter states the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has recommended the vaccination of teenagers, along with a combination of measures such as masks, small bubbles, testing and improved ventilation.
“England has not followed this advice”, the open letter warns.
“There has been no plan for robust mitigation measures in schools to reduce the risk for children from infection and the consequences thereof, including long COVID, hospitalisations, staff safety and educational disruption. In England there is no requirement for masks, bubbles, physical distancing or contact tracing within schools.”
Lack of mitigation will lead to infections spreading
Experts warn a “lack of adequate mitigations will likely lead to infections spreading among children and significant absences due to student and staff illness, further disrupting learning.”.
They say this has already been seen in Scotland where schools have already reopened.
The government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling warned last week schools will likely see “exponential” increases in Covid when they reopen.
The letter adds: “Children are now returning to school against a background of community infection levels 26 times higher than at the same time last year, and with the much more transmissible Delta variant accounting for almost all infections.”
It points to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data which shows one in 50 primary school children, and one in 40 secondary schools children have “prevalent infection”.
Rising Covid rates will coincide with increased pressure on the NHS over winter from other respiratory viruses putting “everyone at risk” and exacerbating “the additional burden on people from disadvantaged areas”, the letter states.
“England’s policies mean that we will soon have a large susceptible population with high prevalence of infection mixing in crowded environments with hardly any mitigations.”
However the government has set out plans to reintroduce measures should cases rise in local areas. The Covid contingency framework sets out different possible measures schools can take once certain ‘thresholds’ are reached.
Measures include considering if activities could take place outside, one-off enhanced cleaning which focuses on touch points and considering ways to improve ventilation.
As a ‘last resort’, local health directors may temporarily introduce attendance restrictions., reinstate face covering and bring back on-site lateral flow testing.
A DfE spokesperson added: “Ventilation is just one measure we are advising schools to take, alongside on-site testing and increased hygiene, to strike the balance between keeping staff, students and families safe and minimising disruption to education.”
The government said it expected ‘in many cases’ the 300 carbon monoxide monitors being rolled out this term will confirm that existing ventilation is sufficient.
The nine point plan to protect pupils and the NHS from the impact of a fourth wave are:
1. Offer vaccines to all 12-15 year olds, with roll-out in schools to maximise access and uptake;
2. Immediately reinstate face coverings for secondary school students and staff in classrooms and communal areas as long as community transmission remains high, with provision by your Department of high-grade masks to schools;
3. Urgently invest in both building ventilation and supplemental ventilation in schools by provision of air filtration devices as needed, with CO2 monitoring of indoor spaces to ensure that targets are met;
4. Reinstate bubbles, this time with appropriate maximum sizes to minimise educational disruption, whilst properly containing transmission;
5. Reinstate contact tracing by schools with strict policy on mandatory isolation and PCR testing of all contacts of cases (in bubbles or households) to prevent onward spread;
6. Improve financial and practical support for self-isolation as this will improve uptake of rapid tests in schools;
7. Provide remote learning options and support, including wifi, tablets and/or laptops for clinically vulnerable children, children living in households with clinically vulnerable members and those required to self-isolate;
8. Remove mandatory attendance policies and prosecutions and fines for parents, so that a parent can make a choice of learning modality that is in the best interests of their child;
9. Provide mental health support in schools for students and staff