Coronavirus, cool heads and ‘reopening’ schools

Much is being said and written at the moment about whether schools in England should ‘reopen’ on 1 June. Of course, the question isn’t actually about whether they should open or close because they are already open to vulnerable children of key workers. The real debate is about the conditions and timescale for the safe extension of opening to include more children. There are no plans to extend school opening on 1 June in other devolved regions of the UK.

Unfortunately, the discussion has not been helped by some sections of the media, with the Daily Mail taking the lead, attacking teachers. This could make the issue appear polarised but it is far more nuanced and, in my opinion, with two issues at heart: is the government’s guidance based on the best science available? Secondly, have plans drawn sufficiently from the wealth experience of teachers doing the job.

In reducing the issue to those two issues, I am not discounting other points that have frequently been raised, I just don’t think they are real points of contention. I don’t think there is any doubt that teachers want to teach. All the teachers I hear or read want to teach. I don’t think there is any doubt that parents want their children in school and learning. I think we all care about children, especially vulnerable children, and understand the dangers of missing education. The thing is, we know that teaching and learning needs to happen in a safe environment.

Is the guidance based on the best science?

The problem here is that COVID-19 is new, our understanding of it is developing at a rapid pace, and many scientific results in the media are unreviewed pre-prints. That said, there are several points of certainty:

  • There is no vaccine for Coronavirus. Protection therefore relies on limiting transmission through social distancing and the use of PPE
  • There is no treatment for Coronavirus itself. Current treatments involve supporting organ systems while an individual’s immune system fights the virus.
  • The average value of R in for the UK is less than 1, but closer to 1 than 0, and varies considerably between different areas and contexts. This means the number of infections will reduce, but slowly.
  • In comparison to other countries, the spread of Coronavirus in the UK (also US and Canada) is atypical. There have been many more deaths and a much slower decline in the UK than elsewhere. This means we should be highly cautious about using other countries as models for extending school opening. For example, Denmark has been given as a model, but has had hundreds of deaths rather than tens of thousands, and a lower R value when schools reopened.
  • There is consistent evidence that young children are less at risk of serious illness or death from Coronavirus. However a 30x increase in a previously-rare inflammatory condition which has led to a number of child deaths globally is a cause for concern.
  • There is mixed evidence on how infectious children are. Some studies indicate they spread the disease less than adults, others that they do so equally.

It is consideration of this evidence that has led the British Medical Association to endorse the stance taken by the National Education Union that insufficient regard has been made of the available evidence and that the timescale for extending pupil numbers in school is too rapid.

Do plans draw sufficiently on the experience of teachers?

The government says that it’s guidance has been drawn up in consultation with school leaders. As is sadly so often the case, it is not clear who these leaders are or how they came to be chosen as consultants. This has led many to the suspicion that they are an echo chamber of the favoured few whose views already chime with those in office. Without more information it is impossible to comment, but certainly the despairing reaction to the drip-feed DfE guidance from so many school leaders suggests that the consultation was not wide enough.

School leaders, teachers and other school staff have already worked incredibly hard. They have simultaneously adopted new ways of working within school, got to grips with a new world of remote working, and implemented other aspects of the response such as free school meals vouchers and the disappearance of the Easter holiday. They were already planning how their schools could be open to more pupils before any government announcement, with the benefit of full understanding of their context and in the light of their experience in school since March. While some of the DfE guidance will be helpful (if late), much of it seems unnecessarily constraining and not to take sufficient regard of the wide variety in school accommodation and contexts that exists.

I do wonder if the top-down model that government seems to be applying is simply inadequate in current circumstances. We have seen that central government perception of the the threat posed by Coronavirus, for supply of PPE, and of the needs of vulnerable groups, such as care homes, was at huge variance with the view of those working in health care. As a result, those on the ground had to act to address deficits in central planning and response. Hospital managers sourced PPE and ventilator parts from alternative sources, medical teams worked out new protocols, and volunteer community groups arose spontaneously in local neighbourhoods to support those in isolation.

I think the lesson from that experience should be that when planning a progressive easing of lockdown, both for schools and in other contexts, planning by central government departments will be much more effective, and safer for us all, if it starts with a lot more listening.

A way forward?

It is good that all parties are currently on discussion, although as yet the government does not not seem to have altered its stance on any point.

It seems to me that there are numerous points of obvious compromise and that agreement is possible. For example, the wording on PPE could be adjusted to give schools more discretion to use it. The commitment to ‘only when safe to do so’ could be reinforced by removing the dates for latter phases and making it clear that next steps will be taken in the light of evidence gathered. Heads who plan to use rota systems should be listened to (they have good reasons), and, in my view, whole school return cannot be considered until there are agreed plans in place to make that safe.

Lastly, while it’s good that so many people are talking about the importance of education, the welfare of children, and the benefits to families, the loudest voices in the media do not seem to be those of parents and carers, still less those of children themselves. We can only arrive at a solution by listening to the needs of families (not just a lone quote supporting an editorial stance), and our care for children must include a consideration of their hopes and concerns.