Will we have unbridled Covid transmission in schools?

We need to end Covid disruption – but government can't just cross its fingers and hope for the best, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Why we could have unbridled Covid transmission in schools

In a week when we saw the number of children who are off school for Covid-related reasons rise to a staggering 640,000, the need for a solution to end this educational disruption became more pressing than ever.

As I have said in this column over the past two weeks, we simply cannot have a situation in the autumn term in which large numbers of children have to periodically self-isolate while the vaccinated adult population is returning to something like normal life.

On the same day that the latest set of bleak attendance statistics were published, the government announced its solution.

The crucial part of this plan is that schools and colleges will no longer have to trace the close contacts of positive Covid cases and ask them to self-isolate. Contact tracing will be done by NHS Test and Trace instead, and the children who are contacted will not be asked to self-isolate but advised to take a PCR test. Thus they will be able to remain in school unless they test positive for Covid or develop symptoms themselves.

Covid and schools: Nothing in this crisis is simple

This sounds like a fairly neat solution to the problem that is apparent in the statistics – which is that, out of the 640,000 children self-isolating at home, the vast majority don’t necessarily have Covid but are close contacts.

However, nothing in this crisis is simple. A letter to medical journal The Lancet makes the case that the society-wide relaxation of Covid restrictions is “dangerous and premature”, and raises concerns that high rates of transmission in schools will lead to significant educational disruption.

“The root cause of educational disruption is transmission, not isolation,” it says. “Strict mitigations in schools alongside measures to keep community transmission low and eventual vaccination of children will ensure children can remain in schools safely.” 

So the danger, it seems, is that we may end up swapping one problem for another. Instead of the main driver of educational disruption being large numbers of close contacts having to self-isolate, we may instead end up with the main driver being unbridled transmission of the coronavirus itself among children and young people who are unvaccinated. Worse still, this would expose them to a health risk, which, though less pronounced than among older age groups, is not non-existent. 

There is certainly no way that anyone could seriously maintain that the new system will be as effective as the current requirements. While we welcome NHS Test and Trace finally picking up the burden of contact tracing, it is unlikely to be able to identify close contacts as effectively as schools and colleges have done. And, even then, all it will be asking those contacts to do is to take a test. 

There is clearly a greater risk under this system that children who have the virus will end up in the classroom. And if this is then added to high transmission rates in society in general, because of the relaxation of restrictions, the potential for very high numbers of children being out of school with Covid in the autumn term is significant.

Not enough to cross our fingers and hope for the best

To be fair, the government is not entirely throwing caution to the wind. It is still advising the obvious measures of good hand and respiratory hygiene, enhanced cleaning, well-ventilated spaces and twice-weekly home testing during September, as well as outbreak management plans, so that measures can be stepped up. 

It is also asking secondary schools and colleges to once again set up on-site Covid testing stations at the start of the autumn term, in order for all students to be tested before they return to the classroom. However, this latter requirement is hugely problematic, because of the logistics involved in establishing and staffing something akin to field hospitals on the premises.

Equally, sticking with the current system of controls would have well-rehearsed problems of its own, and we are clearly in danger of going round in circles. So, what is the answer?

We cannot emphasise this enough: the government must step in and provide the staffing and support for on-site testing at the outset of the autumn term.

If this is the public health advice and it is serious about reducing educational disruption, the government should be drafting an army of suitably trained staff into schools and colleges to run these sites, and it should be setting out detailed plans as soon as possible. This would enable schools and colleges to focus on what is their business: teaching, learning and education recovery.

The outbreak management plans and how they are escalated and implemented are a key element in responding to upsurges in the virus. We envisage that this will be set out in an updated contingency framework – but this needs to happen soon, it needs to be clear, and there needs to be some recognition and planning around the fact that schools and colleges cannot just switch a bubble system back on at the drop of a hat. 

There’s a recognition in the guidance about the importance of well-ventilated spaces, but this is easier said than done during the middle of winter, when it is too cold to keep doors and windows open. Schools and colleges need financial support they can draw on to install high-quality ventilation systems. It is all very well for the Department for Education to say that it is exploring options, but winter will soon be upon us.

We need more information about exactly how NHS Test and Trace is going to identify close contacts, and keep a track of consequent PCR tests. This cannot be a cursory exercise. It is an important element of minimising the risk of transmission.

What on earth has happened to the long-awaited decision from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation about the possibility of providing vaccinations to children aged 12 and over? If this can be done safely, and the benefits clearly outweigh any risks, then it would surely be an answer to our prayers.

Here, then, is at least the start of a more robust plan to beef up the controls for the autumn term without plunging us back into the cycle of vast numbers of children self-isolating. 

As we have said on a number of occasions, it is time to end the educational disruption that has blighted their lives over the course of the pandemic once and for all – and the government cannot rely on simply crossing its fingers and hoping for the best.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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