Article By: Natalie Grover
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The government is threatening to force English secondaries to stay open. Should schools be shut?
The coronavirus pandemic has left schools contending with low attendance, staff shortages and rising infection rates in secondary school pupils, but the government is using emergency powers to threaten legal action against headteachers in England who want to allow their students to learn remotely in the run-up to the holidays.
Here’s what we know about the spread of coronavirus in children and its implications:
How much is Covid-19 spreading among school-age children?
The most recent estimates from the Office for National Statistics show that the prevalence of infection with Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – is highest among secondary school-age children, which suggests they are a considerable source of community transmission, said Dr Stefan Flasche , an associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Last week, the government said it would carry out mass testing in secondary schools and among college students in parts of north-east London, Essex and Kent in response to a worrying increase in cases.
The rise of the virus in school-age children is a concern because transmission inevitably amplifies into staff and the wider community, including vulnerable adults, noted Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London and member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
Are children getting seriously ill?
In general, children are at much lower risk of falling seriously ill compared with adults. In a study published in August that looked at patients admitted to hospitals across England, Scotland and Wales with Covid-19, less than 1% were children and people under 19. Six of these patients – less than 1% – died. All had severe underlying health conditions.
Another concern in children is long Covid, in which symptoms are felt for months, although the condition is more common in adults.
What are the rules about mask-wearing in schools?
Pupils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have to wear face masks in school corridors and communal areas. In England, the government has not recommended face coverings as necessary for education settings generally, but leaves it to the institutions to decide whether to mandate face coverings in indoor communal areas where social distancing cannot be safely managed.
Michie said: “I think there’s enough evidence now on the benefits of mask-wearing — certainly secondary school students should be told to wear masks and primary school children should be encouraged to wear masks.
“I think we’re in a situation where we need to look at the evidence – anything where it suggests this will help reduce transmission we should try to get those measures adopted – while being sensitive to different children’s needs and situations.”
“I wouldn’t fetishize masks, it’s more just a general plan and support to make school safe – it’s almost as if with the vaccine, the government has given up on other measures to suppress the virus,” added Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of Sage.
“And if you’re sitting in a classroom, where mask wearing is not recommended, conditions are far from ideal. The bubbles are far too big, kids are far too close together – in lots of old schools you can’t open the windows properly, in some schools there’s even teaching rooms without windows. So that’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Should schools be closed in the run-up to the holidays?
Wales has announced it will switch to online learning as Christmas approaches, and some unions are calling for other UK schools to do the same.
However, the government is using emergency powers to threaten legal action against headteachers in England who want to allow students to learn remotely.
In some parts of the country community rates of transmission were very high – in this situation, the most responsible thing is to shift teaching online, Michie said, adding: “Just as the schools are staying open for key workers … they should also stay open with those people who haven’t got the wherewithal to have those children looked after.”
Allowing families to mix to an extent over Christmas and then making kids stay in school until very shortly before meeting elderly, possibly vulnerable relatives, seemed to be contradictory, Reicher said, advocating that families should have the right to withdraw their kids so they could isolate to be safe for Christmas.
Michie and Reicher said the main issue was that the government had not given the support and the resources to schools for that to operate safely.
Michie added: “We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world failing our children. It is not good enough for the government to say all schools need to keep hope and then hand responsibility down to school level without the resources and the support needed to make schools safe.”