Covid: Preventing a chaotic autumn term...

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

Schools are braced for an ‘exponential increase’ in Covid infections and yet the government contingency strategy remains thin. Geoff Barton offers three suggestions that could pull us back from the brink...


There has been a huge amount of commentary and speculation about the return of pupils to school in the autumn term. Understandably, this has focused on whether we will see more disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic over the course of the next few weeks and months, and whether the new – and far less stringent control measures – set out by the government (DfE, 2021a) are up to the job of keeping the impact of the virus under control.

It is fair to say that the jury is out on both these important questions. However, scientists on the modelling group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies provided a worrying prognosis in a document published at the end of August (SAGE, 2021; see also SecEd, 2021) concluding that it is highly like that high prevalence of the virus will be seen within schools by the end of September.

It said: “Schools will represent a high proportion of remaining susceptible individuals and it is highly likely that exponential increases will be seen in school-attending age groups after schools open. Vaccination will also have made almost no difference in these population groups over the summer holidays.

“When schools reopen, the mitigations in place to limit transmission within schools will be much reduced compared to the spring and summer terms. Additionally, the prevalence of infection in the community and school-age groups will be higher than in May 2021.”

This bleak forecast demands a plan of action. An essential first step towards education recovery is achieving stable attendance in which children are in the classroom on a sustained and consistent basis without the constant disruption of the past 18 months. It will be difficult to make any recovery plan work effectively without the firm foundation of schools being able to operate in a normal manner.

Unfortunately, the government’s strategy is thin. It consists of asking secondary schools and colleges to deliver on-site asymptomatic testing at the beginning of term – without offering sufficient support for these major logistical operations; the continuation of home-testing thereafter; and a contingency framework which involves stepping up various measures in response to outbreaks.

There is a plan to provide carbon dioxide monitors to schools but currently no programme to supply ventilation equipment where it may be needed. And there is the on-going and – at the time of writing – unresolved question of offering vaccines to all 12 to 15-year-olds (JVCI, 2021).

It is frustrating that the Department for Education (DfE) has made so little progress on a more robust plan during the course of the summer, particularly as the aforementioned scientific paper and the warning it contains is dated August 11, so has presumably been known about for some time.

Leaving aside the question of vaccinations, what could and should be done? The same SAGE paper provides a clear steer. It says that analysis shows that within-school transmission could be reduced through more participation in twice-weekly mass testing. Surely, then it would be sensible for the government to initiate a major public information campaign to encourage and highlight the importance of twice-weekly home testing.

It would have been better if this had begun before the start of term, but even at this stage it could help to reduce the risk of transmission.

Second, the government must strengthen its systems in the event of on-site testing being needed again in the future in secondary schools and colleges. This form of testing is presented as an option in the contingency framework (DfE, 2021b) in response to an outbreak if directed by local Directors of Public Health.

However, on-site testing cannot be stepped up at the drop of a hat and it is unreasonable to expect schools and colleges to constantly discharge a public health task. These programmes should be led, organised and administered by public health teams with the responsibility of schools being limited to hosting them. This would make rapid on-site testing much more deliverable in the event of a rising number of cases and leave schools free to focus on their business – the education of children.

Third, there has to be a greater sense of urgency on the government’s part over the question of ventilation. While the provision of carbon dioxide monitors is a good start, it has taken an eternity to reach even this modest point, let alone actually provide ventilation systems to schools that need this sort of equipment.

It is not sustainable for the government to simply advise schools to keep windows open as temperatures plunge during the autumn and winter months. Funding must be made available for ventilation systems.

These three suggestions could be implemented without turning back the clock to last year’s control measures which resulted in large numbers of children having to self-isolate because of the rules that existed then around close contacts of positive cases. It doesn’t even involve a blanket policy on face coverings.

And even though this should have all been done much earlier, there is still time to make a difference if the government gets its skates on. What schools and pupils need from ministers is resolve and action rather than more dithering and platitudes.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via http://bit.ly/seced-barton


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Guidance: Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak, last updated August 27, 2021a: https://bit.ly/3eGCaHm
  • DfE: Contingency framework: Education and childcare settings, August 2021b: https://bit.ly/3zEcoeI
  • JVCI: JCVI issues updated advice on Covid-19 vaccination of children aged 12 to 15, September 3, 2021: https://bit.ly/3jKNhkY
  • SAGE: SPI-M-O: Consensus Statement on COVID-19 August 11, made public August 27, 2021: https://bit.ly/3DDkDKg
  • SecEd: Back to school: Trepidation ahead of 'highly likely exponential increases' in Covid infections, September 2021: https://bit.ly/3h7i1e1


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