Independent SAGE has published Safe Schools, a new consultation guidance document with recommendations to lower Covid-19 infections in schools.

First published in November 2020.

Independent SAGE and the Emergency Advisory Group for Learning and Education (EAGLE, a group of 20 academic researchers, teachers, headteachers and local government officers), have published a guidance note for safer schools in England, An urgent plan for safer schools, following consultations with headteachers, teachers, local authority officials, representatives of academy trusts, and parents.

The report invites schools to assess and call for the resources they need to operate safely, and for a strengthening of established public health services including the local level. It also calls on the government to provide adequate support, whilst recognising the need for flexibility at a local and school level in response to fast changing situations.

A guidance note for safer schools in England, "An urgent plan for safer schools". | Independent SAGE

The key measures in the report include:

  1. Distancing: Smaller classes are needed in primary schools to make distancing more successful. Secondary schools should reorganise to minimise contact between different classes, and prevent opportunities for infection outside the classroom such as school transport, lunchtimes, and gatherings to enter rooms. Many secondary schools in areas with high levels of infection will need to introduce a blend between on-site and home-based learning.
  2. Ventilation: Good levels of ventilation are necessary, through opening windows or ventilation / heating systems using entirely new air. Students should be encouraged to wear warm outdoor clothing, regardless of normal uniform requirements, with warm clothing supplied to children in need.
  3. Face coverings: Schools should make sure that children have face coverings of good quality. Secondary school students should be encouraged to wear them in classrooms and elsewhere in the school.
  4. Bubbles: Consistent self-contained groups are essential for reducing infections and tracing possible contacts. In secondary schools, these should be much smaller than the entire year group.
  5. Self-isolation: In the case of infections, the bubble should form the basis for isolating contacts. Self-isolation must not be restricted to children sitting next to each other or in sustained contact.
  6. Testing: All staff and students within a bubble should be tested where they are positive cases, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms.
  7. Learning resources: Home-based learning should be supported with textbooks and other books, as well as IT. Sufficient funding and resourcing must be provided for young people in low-income families.
  8. Examinations: Schools need to focus on learning and wellbeing, without sources of stress. Standardised tests and exams can’t run fairly when some schools have been affected worse than others. Primary school tests should be cancelled, and secondary school exams replaced with assessment by teachers, with suitable moderation.
  9. Wellbeing: Creative thinking is needed to ensure that young people are able to socialise safely. The threat of removal from school rolls or fines for non-attendance should be removed where there are medically vulnerable people in a family.
  10. Transparency: Clear information should be provided to all stakeholders and organisations to aid intelligent response to infections.
  11. Advice and support: Local public health teams should become the primary source of advice and support for schools.
  12. Staff: The welfare and morale of teaching and other staff is vital to sustainable provision. Those who are clinically vulnerable should be enabled to work from home where possible.

Commenting on the report, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU, the trade union for school teachers, further education lecturers, education support staff and teaching assistants), welcomed the recommendations.

“This is a welcome intervention by Independent SAGE, which once again exposes the enormous blind-spot that Government has towards schools. Today’s consultation document raises many issues which must now be seriously considered. It is quite clear that schools and colleges need much stronger safety measures.

“There are ways in which schools can be made safer. We gave the Government a roadmap in June, including advice on expanding school sites to get class sizes down, encouraging teachers back from retirement, and a proper, effective test track and trace system. They have delivered on none of this, and have instead given schools late guidance, a helpline that provides inconsistent messages, and the staggering suggestion just this week that NEU members should “hold their nerve” as staff and pupil attendance deteriorates and schools struggle to remain operational. Schools have been abandoned by this Government.

“Bubbles in secondary schools must now be reduced in size – they were always too large and have inevitably led to significant disruption when new Covid cases emerge. A system of rotas may not be ideal, but it is inescapable that more needs to be done to ensure education is sustainable as we emerge from lockdown – particularly in areas of high risk.

“There is no sign of a rethink, but there really has to be. Schools and colleges are now a major centre of transmission of Covid and ministers cannot continue to duck the issue. The Government is blindly pressing on doing very little if anything to keep schools as safe as they need to be. Its lack of positive action is causing confusion, secrecy, mistrust, fear, demoralisation and exhaustion.

In a recent article published in PMP Magazine, the epidemiologist and biostatistician Dr Zoë Hyde explained that the role children, and consequently schools, play in the pandemic has been hard to work out, but the puzzle is now finally starting to be solved.

Evidence suggests schools have been a driver of the second wave in Europe and elsewhere. This means the safety of schools needs an urgent rethink.

It won’t be possible to control the pandemic if we don’t fully address transmission by children. This means we need to take a proactive approach to schools.”🔷

Further Reading:

PMP News reporting.

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 27 November 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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