Letting our hopes of returning to school get the better of our reasoning about doing it safely only risks putting back the date we can reopen, writes Mary Bousted
There has been too much loose talk lately. Yesterday, one MAT CEO wrote in these pages that schools should lead the way out of lockdown and return in mid-May. But that bold statement was heavily caveated. There should be community testing and antibody testing for teachers, the author said. His clarion cry was reported in the national press. The caveats were not.
It’s because of loose talk that I decided recently that the Today programme was bad for my health. I have found myself shouting at my radio and the repeated argument that, because children don’t get COVID-19 badly, schools should be amongst the first institutions to reopen as lockdown eases.
Are people blind to the fact that children have teachers in their classrooms? And support staff, school leaders and other adults, all of whom are more vulnerable and some of whom could suffer severe or even fatal consequences? That children live with their families?
Thankfully, this morning’s Today programme was better for my blood pressure for two chief reasons.
First, the lead interview with one of the government’s chief COVID advisers, Professor Niall Fergusson was clear and realistic. Asked whether schools could re-open as a first step out of lockdown, Professor Ferguson replied that any such consideration “really requires a single minded emphasis in government, and the health system, of scaling up testing and putting in place the ability to track down cases in the community and contact tracing”. This is because, he went on to warn, “if we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission. If we want to re-open schools, let people get back to work, then we need to keep transmission down in another manner.”
Professor Ferguson added a final warning: “It’s not going back to normal. We will have to maintain significant levels of social distancing – probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.”
The problem, of course, is that the government has not yet met a single one of its testing targets for front line NHS staff (one in three of whom, when tested, are COVID positive). Nor has a reliable antibody test been produced.
What are the chances then that Professor Ferguson’s essential conditions can be rolled out in schools by mid-May?
We are surely united in wondering why this needed to be said at all
The second reason I was cheered this morning was another very important interview, with Katharine Birbalsingh, the headteacher of Michaela School. She and I heartily disagree on most things, but I fully empathised with her evident exasperation at being asked whether social distancing could be practised in schools.
“I don’t want people to perpetuate the lie, and it is a lie,” Ms Birbalsingh replied, “that social distancing [in schools] is possible. It just isn’t.” The NEU agrees, and we are surely united in wondering why this needed to be said at all.
On Tuesday, Kevin Courtney and I wrote to Boris Johnson. We asked him to share with us the government’s modelling of the increased number of cases and mortalities among children, their parents, carers and extended families, and their teachers and support staff, as a result of reopening schools.
We asked whether the government’s modelling would be based on concrete plans to establish regular testing of children and staff, the availability of appropriate PPE and enhanced levels of cleaning in schools – all of which schools are experiencing severe difficulties with.
And we asked for the government’s latest evidence concerning the groups of people who are most vulnerable to fatal or life-changing consequences as a result of the virus, for example those who live in crowded accommodation, those with different comorbidities and those from diverse ethnic groups, ages and sexes.
We made clear we thought reopening schools before these questions could be answered satisfactorily would be foolhardy. The only sensible line to take – the NEU’s line – is that schools and colleges should only reopen when it is as safe as possible to do so.
Lockdown is taking its toll, and the reality of our situation is only now truly dawning. The conditions are not yet in place to even begin to envisage when schools might reopen, and loose talk only serves to give mixed messages about social distancing. At present, social distancing is the only protection we have against the spread of COVID-19.
The shortest route to reopening schools is to observe it respectfully, for as long as it takes.