Reopening schools in September without proper mitigations places children at an ever-increasing risk of becoming infected with Covid-19.

First published in August 2021.

Failure to implement proper ventilation, reinstatement and reduction of bubbles, or to offer children the opportunity to be vaccinated, will allow our schools to become superspreading variant factories. In such conditions, it is likely that new strains of the virus will emerge, potentially jeopardising the vaccine strategy upon which the UK and the rest of the world are reliant if we are to end pandemic disruption and damage.

Parents United UK – a 23,000-strong grassroots parents support and campaign group founded in May 2020 – has been consistently calling for a Sensible, Safe and Sustainable approach to education during the pandemic. Our members all have personal motivations for being part of our group and have taken the time to read and understand the science behind a balanced mitigation strategy.

Many are concerned about the prevalence of Long Covid, which affects 7-8% of school-aged children. We have members in the group who are also members of the Long Covid Kids campaign and support group, as their children are suffering significant impairment to their daily functioning. Some of these families have been affected by the draconian attendance policy laid out by the Department for Education (DfE). It is clear that many Schools and Local Authorities – who are responsible for enacting the policy – feel they have no choice but to subject families to threats of fines unless the child is returned to school, irrespective of safety concerns or the physical and mental wellbeing of the child.

This policy has placed extreme pressure on a large proportion of our members; many have children who are clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable. Other parents in our group are vulnerable themselves or are unable to benefit directly from vaccination because of a medical condition. The architects of the pandemic attendance policy – if only because of our numerous attempts to apprise them of the facts – must surely be aware that not everyone can be given the vaccine, and not everyone mounts an immune response to it.

Despite this, the Department for Education’s policy since September 2020 has been that all children must attend school, with few exceptions who would likely have been Educated Other Than At School even before the pandemic. The DfE’s excuse for exposing households with clinical vulnerability to extreme levels of risk – including in areas with very high infection rates – has been the education and wellbeing of children and young people.

Our membership also includes people with life-limiting conditions – people are fighting for their lives and for their right to protect the limited time they have left with their children; they know that every day they survive to give love and care to their children will be of benefit to those children. Regardless of this, the UK government has done absolutely nothing to acknowledge that the serious illness or death of a parent has a debilitating impact on children, exposing them to educational and societal disadvantage, the consequences of which may last a lifetime.

The dedication of the government to the safety and wellbeing of children is also questionable on a number of other counts, including their refusal to resource remote learning provision to children for whom it is not safe to attend school. We have even seen that when the threats of court action, fines for non-attendance, and unlawful pressure to remove the child from the school roll are applied, the few schools who had offered some form of home learning support remove it.

In some cases schools have advised parents that they were instructed by the local authority to take this action so as not to be seen to be encouraging the family to keep the child at home. Families who are subjected to this treatment include people with a broad range of medical conditions, ranging from serious kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, blood cancer and COPD to common conditions like asthma, diabetes and arthritis, in both young and old – all of whom are at additional risk should they contract Covid-19.

Many of our members have children with additional learning needs; they have already fought for their child to have an Educational and Health Care Plan and for its fulfilment, sometimes in specialist learning provision. For many of these children, it really isn’t safe to attend school while they are unvaccinated and the rates of community prevalence are high: comorbid medical conditions are common in children who have complex learning needs, and a learning disability diagnosis in itself already places these children at higher risk. These people can’t just give up their child’s school place; it could take months or even years to find their child a new place that would meet their learning needs once it is safe for them to attend school again.

Despite Gavin Williamson’s insistence that the Schools Operational Guidance during the pandemic has been crafted on the principles of supporting the most vulnerable children in our society, disabled children have been repeatedly let down, and their parents threatened with court actions and fines, even if they can capably demonstrate that they have been able to sufficiently meet their child’s needs at home, albeit often to their own financial detriment.

The fact that the parents of some of these children were asked to sign Do Not Resuscitate orders in case their child contracted Covid-19 tells a story about this government’s approach to protecting children with disabilities.

No parent in our group wants their child to miss out on their education, and it is a huge sadness for many parents that their children have lived through a time when coronavirus has had a vastly challenging impact on all our lives. But our members cannot accept that the very few school safety measures which were in place are being removed while their children remain unprotected by vaccination. Naturally, they want to see a day when they and their families can forget the need to reduce the risk of Covid transmission; but they also understand that to take that stance now effectively abandons a large number of people in our society – many of them children – to social isolation and risk of infection, hospitalisation or long term disability in the form of Long Covid.

Concerns about the economic impact of the pandemic are valid; but for many families to take part in economic and social activities such as shopping, attending baby groups, dining out and visiting theme parks they have to feel it is safe to take their children along with them. If children remain unvaccinated, and community prevalence – of which schools are a critical part – is allowed to be ragingly high they are unlikely to feel sufficiently safe.

Rather than the removal of mitigations in schools, we need to see them be improved. As well as offering vaccination to children as soon as the evidence shows it to be medically safe – which is now, in respect of children aged 12 and overwe need to see the reintroduction of face coverings in secondary school classrooms wherever there is high prevalence of coronavirus in the community. At present this is the case across the country, thanks to the spread of the Delta variant.

The removal of the bubble system is also a calamitous move, and one based on a misrepresentation of the facts. It was never the case that the purpose of bubbles was to dictate who should isolate when a positive case is detected. Under the Schools Operational Guidance, it has always been the decision of Public Health England as to who is defined as close contact and should therefore isolate. We would like to suppose that they made those decisions on the basis of what needed to be done to limit the spread of coronavirus and protect public health. Whatever the approach to testing and isolating individuals, the existence of bubbles is a separate issue related only in the sense that keeping bubbles in place will mean there will be fewer cases to test and isolate for. Bubbles are about reducing the number of contacts each person in a school has; the fewer contacts a person has, the less opportunity they have to become infected and to infect others; not only should they remain in place, but they should be reduced in size in areas with high rates of infection in order to limit the number of schools which need to close or send year groups home as a result of outbreaks.

Finally, we need to see emergency action on and funding for ventilation, such as clear and illustrated guidance for education workers on the importance of ventilation and the means by which good rates of airflow can be achieved. Schools should be provided with CO2 sensors to monitor ventilation, portable HEPA filters and simple maintenance and adaptions to the existing means of ventilation in classrooms. Some classrooms do not have windows; in many, windows open only a minuscule amount.

Despite the overwhelming body of evidence that Covid is airborne, there has been no coordinated effort to assess or improve the ventilation in our schools, nor to provide supplementary air filtration in order to mitigate against airborne transmission risk. This is bizarre given that such action is being done in other countries, including Ireland; thanks to the UK’s usual tardy approach to pandemic management, there is ample evidence demonstrating that works and that fresh air initiatives do not necessarily have to be expensive.

When we consider the impact that a further wave stands to have on our children and society as a whole, getting Covid mitigations in schools right will be well worth the investment, and would afford us substantial savings from the prevention of a huge burden of long-term disability in our next generation of workers. 

This article was adapted from a presentation by Gemma Sewell of Parents United UK at the Global Summit to End Pandemics.


Parents United, grassroots, parent-led campaign for a sensible, safe, and sustainable approach to UK Schools.


Going Further:

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 4 August 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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