While mass testing in some secondary schools in London, and parts of Kent and Essex is a start, the Government must urgently address those other parts of the country where infection rates remain high, teachers and school leaders’ unions say.

First published in December 2020.

During Thursday’s Downing Street coronavirus briefing, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock announced that secondary school children will be tested across London, and part of Kent and Essex, after saying that he was “particularly concerned” about the number of cases in the three regions. Although test data show the rate among adults in London is “broadly flat”, cases among children aged 11-18 are rising fastest, which is likely to be replicated in other age groups, according to the politician.

The teachers and school leaders’ view

Commenting on the announcement, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), the trade union for school teachers, further education lecturers, education support staff and teaching assistants, said:

Finally, the Government has woken up to the fact that schools are a major centre of transmission for Covid. This has been glaringly obvious for weeks. Rolling out testing in these two areas is a start, but the Prime Minister needs to urgently address those other parts of the country where infection rates remain high.

“Parents will welcome this news, but they will at the same time recognise the Government's pattern of behaviour when it comes to schools. This follows hot on the heels of their ludicrous last-minute suggestion that 18 December should become an Inset day, demonstrating a quite staggering disconnect between ministers and the lived experience of schools.

Case counts would not be so extreme in schools if Government had agreed to the early closing of schools and a take-up in online learning ahead of Christmas, and if they had followed our suggestions about secondary schools moving to rota operation. The decision to move all secondary teaching online in Wales is a much more robust response to an increasingly worrying situation.

“The highest rates of infection amongst school age children have shifted from the North to London and surrounding areas, and the current rate of coronavirus infection amongst 10 to 14 years old in some areas is clearly awful.

Our primary members will also be concerned that they have not been included in the roll out, when absence rates have been rising amongst that age group throughout autumn term. Like school leaders across the country, they will not appreciate yet another announcement which raises more questions than it answers.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, also commented on Matt Hancock’s announcement: “This is clearly a very serious new development, and the government’s first priority must be the safety of those involved.

The government is yet to explain why during this emergency testing period public health is best served by schools remaining fully open. A very short-term period of home learning while test results are obtained would ensure further transmission does not occur in schools amongst the most affected group.

Government must provide a clear explanation to school leaders, parents and pupils so that communities can have confidence in the government’s approach.”

Transmission in schools

Dr Zoë Hyde, an epidemiologist and biostatistician, based at the Western Australia Centre for Health and Ageing, University of Western Australia, has presented several very insightful observations on Covid-19, relating to schools, children, and virus transmission.

Children may transmit coronavirus at the same rate as adults – What we now know about schools and COVID-19.
The risk associated with schools is tied to the level of community transmission. The more community transmission there is, the more transmission there will be in schools.

Indeed, recent research provided further evidence that children and adults are equally susceptible, and similarly likely to transmit.“Schools have been a driver of the second wave in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere,” Dr Hyde concluded.

In his daily Covid-19 UK Chart published on Thursday in PMP Magazine, Dr Joe Pajak explained that, whilst most people will welcome the Health Secretary’s announcement regarding the mass testing of children in secondary schools – especially “as Covid-19 continues to spread aggressively within communities”many parents, scientists, and educationalists “believe that the government may have misjudged the health risks associated to children for too long.”

So far, 63,082 people have died as a result of coronavirus in the UK. It is the highest death toll in Europe.🔷

UK: Highest death toll in Europe. | Worldometers.info

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🗳️ Matt Hancock

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 11 December 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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