Education unions have urged the government to consider reintroducing safety measures in schools after an expert warned about the level of Covid circulating among secondary students.
The GMB, Unite, Unison, NEU and NASUWT unions have written to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi calling for an urgent meeting to discuss bringing back stronger Covid restrictions for schools.
The unions said they are also writing to local authorities and directors of public health asking them to consider measures in their local areas.
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The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that around one in 15 children in school years 7 to 11 in England are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week to 2 October – the highest positivity rate for any age group.
And DfE figures show that more than 200,000 pupils were off for Covid-related reasons on 30 September, including more than 100,000 pupils who were off after testing positive for the virus.
Warning about Covid safety in schools
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there is a risk children in that age group could reach herd immunity through infection rather than vaccination.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is a risk of that, and it’s not a good way to get to herd immunity.
“Commentators would usually say it’s ridiculous to aim for herd immunity using natural wild-type infection because that brings with it disease and damage to children both from acute disease and potentially long Covid.”
He said there is “no pretence that this is a deliberate attempt to get herd immunity – that would also be ridiculous”.
Professor Semple suggested that “some flexibility would be great” for parents in England to be able to take children to vaccination centres.
Most children in England aged 12-15 are currently being offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine by immunisation teams at schools.
Professor Semple said the uptake so far in this age group has been “really encouraging”, but added: “I’m sure it will take time for confidence to build among many parents.”
He was speadking as the five education unions made the joint call on Mr Zahawi to do more to tackle Covid in schools.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “We are concerned that the government is standing by while Covid cases surge across schools.
“It is evident that more needs to be done, and sooner rather than later, to prevent further massive disruption to children’s education, caused either by children contracting Covid-19 or Covid-related staff absence.”
Jim Kennedy, Unite national officer for education, called on Mr Zahawi to “reset the safety agenda for schools” and argued that, with winter approaching, “the whole range of measures to keep schoolchildren safe needs to be deployed – the rising level of infections in schools demands it”.
The NASUWT said schools need more support with on-site testing “rather than relying on home testing, which is less effective”, and called on the government to consider reinstating the requirement for students who are contacts of positive cases to self-isolate.
Avril Chambers, GMB national officer, said the latest figures show “it is clear further mitigation measures are needed immediately” in order to avoid further disruption to schooling.
The letter in full:
The Rt Hon Nadhim Zahawi MP
Secretary of state for education
Dear Secretary of State,
We are writing as unions representing school leaders, teachers and support staff to urge you to give all education settings the guidance and resources they need to keep pupils safely learning for the rest of this term. We began this term hoping for better times and a more normal feel across the education system, but, as the weeks have gone by, it has become clear that the DfE guidance published on 23 August requires urgent updating.
Thresholds in the DfE contingency framework for even seeking advice following cases are set too high; meaning that cases can already be spreading across a school before additional measures are considered.
Government data shows that confirmed Covid-19 cases amongst school-aged children surged to 102,000 on 30 September, a 67 per cent rise since 16 September. Over 204,000 pupils were absent from school on 30 September for Covid-related reasons. Staff absence is also impacting on education with some children suffering disruption as a result of staff absence, and staff and leaders under enormous strain as a result.
It is unclear when the impact of the vaccination programme for 12- to 15-year-olds will begin to be felt and so in the meantime more needs to be done to prevent the spread.
Many other countries in Europe have kept in place proportionate mitigation measures in schools, such as face coverings and quarantine of close contacts, whilst rolling out a vaccination programme and have not experienced the back-to-school surge in cases that we have seen in England.
In addition, a growing number of councils are now using the freedoms they have under the Department for Education guidance to bring in additional mitigations in schools. This reflects their responsibilities for public health, and also under health and safety legislation.
Staffordshire County Council, for example, is encouraging all schools to introduce a range of measures including to stop whole-school assemblies and bring back classroom bubbles and face coverings; all close contacts to get a PCR test; and reintroduction of staggered start, finish and lunch times because it is "time to be proactive" about rising cases.
Additional mitigations have been recommended in areas including Cambridgeshire, City of Wolverhampton Council, Cumbria County Council and in some London boroughs. For example, in Cumbria, siblings of children diagnosed with Covid should be kept at home until their test comes back negative.
These are all important measures that we believe need to be implemented across all schools. Combined with a relentless focus on ventilation, with use of HEPA filters where ventilation cannot be improved in any other way (a focus which will reap benefits far beyond the end of the pandemic), these measures could make a real difference in England.
Without a change of direction, we risk damaging the education of thousands of children at some point before Christmas. The health of some children, but particularly that of vulnerable staff, parents or grandparents, could be compromised.
This is an urgent problem, and we look forward to your swift response. We would also welcome the opportunity for an urgent meeting with you to discuss these matters further.
Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, joint general secretaries, NEU
Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary
Avril Chambers, GMB national officer
Jon Richards, Unison assistant general
Jim Kennedy, Unite national officer for education