Don't reopen the germ factories
A concerned parent writes
Boris Johnson has said that the UK has a “moral duty” to reopen schools. 1 The idea that Boris Johnson can lecture anyone about their moral duties is ludicrous! Especially in the context of the bungled government response to the pandemic. Schools are due to reopen for children in Scotland in August and across the rest of the UK in early September. Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green appeared to echo the government line. Green told Times Radio that it is ‘essential’ to reopen schools in September. However, scientists, parents and education unions have expressed concerns that it is unsafe to reopen schools in September under the current government proposals.
What has been happening since the lockdown?
The UK locked down on 23rd March 2020. Schools and nurseries closed to the majority of pupils, but remained open for the children of key workers. The transition to home learning has not been easy for pupils, parents or teachers. Pupils from better off families have been able to undertake home learning more easily, with access to resources such as private tutoring, quiet study space and online content. 2 A lot of learning moved suddenly online, which was not ideal for pupils without access to a computer or the internet. Suddenly the “broadband communism” proposed by Labour in the 2019 General Election didn’t seem like such a terrible idea. 3 Schools reopened to some pupils at the start of June, with pupils from Year 1, Year 6 and Reception were able to attend in socially distanced classes.
Is it safe to reopen?
With most schools due to fully re-open in September, the big question is: "Is it safe to do so?" Under the current plans, pupils will not have to social distance, or wear masks. The plan is for pupils to limit contact to students within their class or year group ‘bubble’. Grouping by years, can number several hundred students in secondary schools. This makes it unclear how this high number of contacts constitutes a ‘bubble’. Scientific experts such as David King, have raised concerns that, without an effective track and trace system in operation, it is unsafe for schools to reopen. King, who leads the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Independent SAGE), has said that “Reopening schools should be a priority, but we believe we are nowhere near the point where it can be done safely”. 4
Researchers from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have completed a study, published in The Lancet on the potential impact pupils returning to school could have on the spread of the virus. 5 These researchers have said that NHS test and trace in England is falling short. Professor Chris Bonell, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said of test and trace: “It is not achieving the levels we have modelled. It doesn't look good enough to me". 6
The Lancet study warns that:
“without (effective) levels of testing and contact tracing, reopening of schools together with gradual relaxing of the lockdown measures are likely to induce a second wave that would peak in December, 2020” 7
The privatised track and trace system in the UK has been an abject failure, the private firm Serco was awarded a £108 million contract, yet 10,000 Serco contact tracers have spoken to an average of 2.4 people each. 8 Serco is due to have its contract renewed in a fortnight, this time to the tune of £300 million.
The case study of Israel provides a cautionary tale. Israel was one of the first countries to reopen its schools, sending all pupils back towards the end of May. Within days a large number of infections were reported in one school, then the virus spread out from the school into families, other schools and neighbourhoods. More outbreaks in schools followed and led to tens of thousands of teachers and students being quarantined. Eli Waxman, the chair of the team advising Israel’s National Security Council on the pandemic, advised other countries contemplating fully reopening schools: “They definitely should not do what we have done...It was a major failure”. 9
A draft study by Public Health England, was leaked to The Sunday Times on 10th August. That suggests that older children transmit the virus like adults do. 10 This has also been shown in a recent study of nearly 65,000 people in South Korea. 11 The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson issued a statement saying that the report shows that “there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”. It is worrying, but not particularly surprising, that the Education Secretary would seek to falsely represent the contents of the unpublished report; and potentially put lives at risk in order to continue with the school reopening plans.
Scientists have recently called for routine Covid testing in schools, alongside an effective track and trace system. Asymptomatic transmission is believed to account for around 40% community transmission, and the figure could be higher amongst school children. However, the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, ruled out routine testing and insisted that only those who are symptomatic will be tested. 12
What do teachers unions and parents think?
Education unions have consistently sounded the alarm over the unsafe reopening of schools. In Northern Ireland, a spokesperson for the NASUWT union has said that the union is prepared to take legal action against schools who threaten the health and wellbeing of their members via exposure to the virus. 13 Meetings between teaching union leaders and MPs have been described as ‘combative’. Union leaders questioned the ability of schools to reopen safely, and Conservative MPs accused the unions of running a political campaign against schools reopening. 14
The UK’s largest teaching union, the National Education Union (NEU), has agreed that schools should reopen in September, provided that safety requirements are met. The NEU, in collaboration with other trade unions, has issued a ‘checklist’ for teachers returning to school, to help ensure that pupils and staff are as safe as they can be.15 The checklist states that staff will be supported to ‘escalate’ their concerns beyond their school leadership if the safety measures are not met in their school. This checklist has been labelled a ‘wrecker’s charter’ and an impossible set of ‘nit-picking’ demands - by the right-wing press and Conservative MPs. NEU president, Amanda Martin, told Times Radio that the union stands by the checklist, stating “This is people's safety.”
The leader of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) headteacher’s union, Geoff Barton, has said that schools could teach pupils on a 'week on, week off' basis; if the government continued to demand that all children return to school by September. 16 Mr Barton added that his union members were developing their own contingency plans due to a lack of clear guidance from the government.
Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT union, has said that the government needs to take urgent action to convince teachers and parents that returning to school will be safe. Dr Roach has argued that face masks should be compulsory for secondary school pupils and staff, but the government guidance states that wearing face masks is not necessary for pupils and teachers in schools. An unnamed union source quoted in The Guardian said “this makes no sense at all”, as children aged 11 and older are required to wear masks on public transport and in shops. 17
Parents have expressed apprehension about schools reopening. Kate Dunsmore, a parent of three children interviewed in The Guardian, expressed distrust in the government and saying “I think it’s too soon to reopen fully, and I also don’t think there’s a proper plan to get them back. It feels like [the government] are sending them back because they have to”. 18 Groups such as the Cambridge-based ‘Cambs Parents and Carers Forum’ have organised protests against the full reopening of schools.
Micheal Tierney, spoke on behalf of the parents and carers campaign:
"Schools are already massively underfunded. Most schools in Cambridge have too many pupils for the size of the building...Now headteachers are being told to open schools to all pupils in September without any new funding and with limited access to community infection data or adequate track and trace... There is no plan B to deal with a second wave and no guidance to provide support for families who are shielding.”19
Key demands of the campaign are for schools to open when safe, and for funding for resources and additional facilities to tackle COVID-19.
Will the Labour Party stand up for teachers and kids?
In the face of the above concerns from unions and parents, Labour has said very little in support of them. The previous Shadow Education Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was vocally supportive of the education union’s concerns. She called the decision to reopen schools to some pupils in June, on the expectation that Reception class children would social distance, “doolally”. 20 However, she was a lone supportive voice on the Labour front bench for the union, and she was rapidly removed from her position. Anonymous leaks to The Telegraph from ‘senior Labour sources’ criticised Long-Bailey for failing to "stand up to the NEU" and not being "open to working with the Tories”.
The replacement Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, was more supportive of the government’s plans, stating in an interview with Sky News that the Labour Party does not believe face masks are necessary in schools. She openly disagreed with the unions on this issue. 21 Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has repeatedly spoken of the "need to reopen schools." His first intervention regarding this was on 15th April, a day after the NEU had written to the Prime Minister asking him to stop ‘unhelpful’ speculation about schools reopening.
Starmer has taken pains to distance himself from organised labour, no doubt as part of his attempt to appear acceptably ‘sensible’ to the establishment. The problem with this is that he appears to have very little of substance to say. He repeats his mantra of ‘support the government’, instead of supporting workers and students or developing his own policies and plans.
In his latest statement on reopening schools, Starmer said Labour would offer “support” where the government was taking the right action, but would “challenge” on testing, tracing and isolating. 22 A weak statement, but I suppose any sort of challenge is a start. Starmer also said that “a clear plan is needed”; why not propose one then Sir Keir? The teachers might have some ideas. In a rare burst of activity, Jonathan Ashworth, the Shadow Health Secretary, has written to the Health Secretary to argue that Serco should not have its contract for track and trace renewed. I welcome this intervention.
What is the Alternative?
If I were the Labour leader 23, I would be listening to teachers (via their unions), as well as scientists and parents - and I'd be coming up with a plan to reopen schools safely. I would push the government to implement my plan. I would be making strong public statements about the need for a functional track and trace system, removed from the grasping hands of inept private companies. I would be fighting alongside education unions for their member’s and pupil’s safety, and I would be with them 100% in solidarity. I would not let it drop.
Of course it is important to get kids back to school. Education and socialisation are important and poorer kids suffer more when schools are closed. Home educating as an ill-equipped parent is difficult, and a lack of childcare could pose significant problems now that many parents have no choice but to go back to work. However, shoving kids quickly back into schools without adequate safety measures in place, and crossing our fingers that it will be ok, is not an acceptable solution. Ignoring scientific advice that doesn’t fit the narrative of ‘it’s safe to open schools’ is indefensible.
I would urge the government and Labour leadership to start listening to teachers and scientists, and work to ensure the safety of teachers, pupils and the wider community before fully reopening schools. The current proposals are not good enough. Our kids, teachers and communities deserve better.
23 I accept that this scenario is quite unlikely.