Schools face ‘knife edge’ as scientists warn of ‘exponential’ Covid surge

Geoff Barton

A warning by government scientific advisers that schools will likely see “exponential” increases in Covid when they reopen has been described as “extremely worrying” by headteachers as the new term approaches.

In a consensus statement on the return to schools published today, the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling warned it was “highly likely that high prevalence will be seen within schools by the end of September 2021”.

In the statement, which was issued to the government on August 11, the group said schools will represent a “high proportion of remaining susceptible individuals”, and warned it was “highly likely that exponential increases will be seen in school-attending age groups after schools open”.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said the statement demonstrated that the “situation is on a knife-edge as the new term approaches”.

“It is extremely worrying to see scientific advisers concluding that exponential increases of coronavirus infections are highly likely in school-age children.

“We simply cannot have another term of disruption and it is vital that the government is ready to respond rapidly to any upsurge in infections with more support for schools and colleges.”

‘This is clearly a recipe for chaos’

Barton acknowledged the government’s contingency framework, which was updated last week with advice on what schools can do if case rates rise. But he warned there was a “real danger that this will become the normal state of affairs with various measures being implemented on a local basis”.

“This is clearly a recipe for chaos, and the government cannot once again allow a situation to develop in which attendance unravels, and children experience yet more disruption.”

In the statement, the group of scientists warned that vaccination will have made “almost no difference” to school-age pupils over the summer. They also pointed out that when schools reopen, mitigations in place to limit transmission “will be much reduced compared to the spring and summer terms”.

“Additionally, the prevalence of infection in the community and school-age groups will be higher than in May 2021.”

James Bowen, head of policy at the NAHT, said the statement “lays bare the challenges school will likely face next term”.

“The government has chosen to remove many of the mitigations that were in place in schools last year, and it has done very little to look to replace these with alternative safety measures.

Fears lost learning could increase

“Its reason for removing bubbles and isolation requirements was to stop children missing school. But if an increase in cases means more children getting ill, lost learning could actually increase for many.”

The SPI-M-O statement pointed to analysis which it said showed in-school transmission could be reduced “through more
participation in twice weekly mass testing”.

However, while the analysis focused on in-school transmission, schools are also “inevitably linked to any community epidemic”. The group added there was “no consensus whether schools are major or effective drivers of community transmission or merely good indicators of it”.

“It is highly likely that high prevalence will be seen within schools by the end of September 2021. This may reflect either community or within-school transmission, and the role of schools in driving wider transmission remains uncertain. Regardless of this, it would be sensible for government to plan for this eventuality.”

Statement a ‘rebuke’ to Williamson

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the statement was a “rebuke” to education secretary Gavin Williamson.

“Next to nothing has been done to prepare for the possibility of large numbers of cases which will lead to lots of education disruption as children and staff have to isolate because they are positive – or stay off because their Covid symptoms go on longer.”

He said Williamson needed to support schools to “consider face coverings from day one of term, alongside social distancing where possible, and special consideration for vulnerable staff”.

“To prevent a sharp rise in cases, the watchwords must be ventilation, air filtration, masks, vaccines and vigilance.”

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