At the time of writing, 1 in 5 secondary-age children are off school. They’re either isolating or ill.
Almost 66% of secondary schools have pupils isolating.
8% of teachers are off, meaning schools are having to buy in cover teachers.
Our already underfunded schools are footing the bill for this cover, along with ALL the changes they’ve had to put in place to make schools safer (like all the additional cleaning…).
There should be no doubt that schools are doing their absolute best under incredibly difficult circumstances. The challenges they are facing have been largely downplayed by the media, and outright ignored by the government. We are stretching our schools to breaking point.
While I completely agree that it’s better for students to be in school, and while there are some very complex situations to consider, particularly for vulnerable students, the general public are being misled by both media and the Department for Education as to the safety of the situation.
Schools are best placed to make the decision about whether it’s safe to stay open, given staff shortages, the number of confirmed cases etc, but this week, the DfE have taken it out of schools’ control. This doesn’t seem to have been reported by any media outlets that aren’t specifically for teachers.
Here are some of the recent images included in news stories about schools lately.
Let’s do the maths for a second. (I’ll be quick, promise!)
I’m using an estimate of 30 students in a classroom. (Yes, some have less, but some have more. It’ll do for the illustration, and I’m basing it on 15 years teaching experience.)
Even with the current 1 in 5 students out of school, that leaves 24 to fit in a room.
Classrooms haven’t grown, so if a standard classroom was full with about 30 students (they are), then it’s still going to be pretty full with 24. There’s DEFINITELY not enough room in them to have one empty seat per table (or you’d be able to fit 48 kids in under normal circumstances!).
Realistically speaking, schools are physically unable to keep students 1m apart. There’s nothing they can do, short of suddenly magically creating twice as many classrooms.
(Also, from many, many years of trying to keep students as separate as possible when they do tests in class, it’s INCREDIBLY difficult to do so in a way that all students can see the board when all you have to work with is 1.2m wide desks.)
So let’s face it, despite what the government would like to suggest about the safety of classrooms, it’s extremely unlikely that your child is in a socially distanced classroom.
That’s going to have a knock-on effect when it comes to infection rates. Which brings me to…
Before schools went back in September, unions urged the government to make face coverings mandatory for adults. However, the DfE issued guidance against using face coverings in schools.
The WHO say children aged 12+ should wear masks in the same circumstances as adults. However, it’s only since early November that the DfE have made masks compulsory for students in communal areas (although not in classrooms). The DfE are still advising AGAINST wearing masks in classrooms.
Teachers have wildly differing experiences in the classroom right now, since some rooms have windows that open widely enough to ensure ventilation, and some don’t. It’s pretty chilly in a classroom with the window open in winter. Ventilation is recommended to try to make it safer to have 30 children in a room for an hour at a time (or the whole day if it’s the teachers moving, not the kids).
If you haven’t read this article about aerosol transmission, please do – it’s well reasoned, and the diagrams are superb.
Risks to teachers:
165 teachers died in the first wave of Covid (and there are NO plans to survey this again now we’re in the second wave (?!?)).
But wait, didn’t we get told that teaching wasn’t a ‘high risk’ profession during Covid times?
Yes, we did.
Chris Whitty announced that data from the ONS (Office of National Statistics) and ‘other data’ shows that teachers are not at a high risk when at work, but the ONS data has been called starkly into question this week, and the ‘other’ data has never surfaced.
Sarah Rasumussen holds a PhD from Harvard, is currently on secondment to Princeton University, and usually works in the mathematics department at Cambridge University. Short version? She knows her stuff.
Sarah has pointed out several (major) discrepancies in the ONS data in this Twitter thread.
In summary, all the other data involved covered up to the 31st of October, but the ‘teacher’ data only went up to the 16th of October. Why is that important? Well, on the 17th of October is when 2-11 year-olds overtook 35-49 year-olds in terms of infection.
More tellingly still, the data was categorised like this:
- Nursery/preschool teacher
- Primary school teacher
- Secondary school / 6th form teacher
- University lecturer
- Teacher of unknown type
- Education support staff
- Other professions
- Other key worker
The key here is “teacher of unknown type,” with error bar 35% SMALLER than the positivity—meaning most respondents simply answered “teacher.”
THIS teacher category had
28% higher positivity than key workers,
16% higher positivity than other professions.
She therefore argues that since most teachers just answered ‘teacher’, the graph should have showed this:
This puts teachers in the highest positivity category by far, even considering it only includes up to the 16th of October, after which, things got worse.
She adds this side note:
If you fancy a look at the science behind the justifications for keeping schools open, she’s had some thoughts on that too… https://twitter.com/SarahDRasmussen/status/1309437229622865920?s=20
Now consider that teachers are reporting being encouraged not to isolate, because of pressure on supply budgets. (I’m assuming this is just for those who have been in contact with a positive case, not those who are positive themselves.)
This week, again barely noted in the media, there’s been a very important development.
An academy Trust (in the North – where Covid seems to be worst) announced they were going to close a week early before Christmas, and make it up in the summer term. No loss of learning, just to ensure the safety of their students and staff AND THEIR FAMILIES over Christmas as it would allow a 2 week buffer between school ending and families gathering.
The DfE made them cancel this.
All schools MUST stay open. Heads aren’t allowed to make the decision any more – it’s to be decided nationally by the DfE.
Why does this matter?
Take yourself back for a moment to a time when your child has had a snow day.
Ahhh, the unbridled joy of a snow day when you’re a teenager! Waiting by the radio / hitting refresh on the site to check whether your school is closing….
Schools announce these on the day, usually around 8am. That’s because heads will ONLY call a snow day once a significant proportion of staff have called in to say they can’t get there. There’s a legal requirement for an adult:child ratio to ensure everyone’s safety.
It’s not something they do lightly, and it’s down to individual schools to make the call.
The same should apply for having to close a school in the event staff are off isolating.
“There cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach where the system of controls describes every scenario. School leaders will be best placed to understand the needs of their schools and communities and to make informed judgments about how to balance delivering a broad and balanced curriculum with the measures needed to manage risk. The system of controls provides a set of principles to help them do this and, if schools follow this advice and maximise the use of control measures, they will effectively minimise risks.”
This quote comes directly from the DfE guidance for full opening: schools (5th November).
Now, 3 weeks later, that’s gone out of the window.
Yes, some schools have not done as well as others when it comes to remote learning.
Do bear in mind though that the laptops promised by the government for disadvantaged children have been cut, and delayed.
Bear in mind also that cover lessons are simply nowhere near as effective as ‘normal’ lessons either.
There’s no ‘ideal’ solution to all of this, which is why it’s so tough, but at some point, we have to start acknowledging that it simply isn’t safe for schools to be delivering all their learning in person.
The NHS in Hull have been begging the government to allow schools to use blended learning (a mix of in-person and online).
Now, let’s talk Christmas:
Here’s what we know about Covid-19.
- Teenagers are just as contagious as adults
- CDC state 16% of children are asymptomatic (last updated in August)
- The WHO state you can become infectious from 2 days before you start showing symptoms. An article from Harvard says that emerging research suggests you are at your most infectious from two days before you start showing symptoms (makes sense, since you’d hopefully be isolating as soon as you realise you have symptoms, so you’re unlikely to infect people afterwards!).
- Another study suggested that the viral load (how much virus in your system) in children is highest between 3 days before and 3 days after the onset of symptoms. There was also no difference in viral load between symptomatic patients and asymptomatic ones.
- The incubation period from exposure to symptoms is commonly 5-6 days, but can range from 1-14 days.
Schools are being forced to finish on the 18th (give or take by region). Let’s say in a worst-case scenario that a student or teacher is exposed on the last day.
You can see why this has caused many teachers to take the decision to not see their families this Christmas.
To isolate for the 10 days recommended if you’ve potentially come into contact takes you up to the 28th, by which point the window is closed, and the ‘three household’ rules no longer apply.
There is no way to follow the recommended safety guidelines for the Christmas window if you work in a school.
This also applies to students visiting grandparents over Christmas.
The ‘three household’ window starts just as you’d be likely to become symptomatic if you were exposed on the last day of term – AND potentially at your most infectious.
I don’t know about you, but that certainly makes me worried enough to be delaying our family celebrations until Easter.
I know just how important education is, particularly for any students in exam years, but so is their health and safety. And yours.
Further reading / references:
SARS-CoV-2 Infections Among Children in the Biospecimens from Respiratory Virus-Exposed Kids (BRAVE Kids) Study https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cid/ciaa1693/5952826