This is a collective statement on behalf of SHA bringing together public health evidence and other opinions on a key Covid policy issue.

The Westminster Government announced on May 10th that:

“As a result of the huge efforts everyone has made to adhere to strict social distancing measures, the transmission rate of coronavirus has decreased. We therefore anticipate, with further progress, that we may be able, from the week commencing 1 June, to welcome back more children to early years, school, and further education settings. We will only do this provided that the five key tests set by the government justify the changes at the time, including that the rate of infection is decreasing. As a result, we are asking schools, colleges, and childcare providers to plan on this basis, ahead of confirmation that these tests are met”

We believe that the 5 tests will not be fully met by June 1st and that this announcement was premature. This decision has been taken without transparency about the evidence that has been used on the direct and indirect health impacts. We now see French schools having to reclose.

We also believe that the Government should have attempted to agree a consensus with Local Authorities and Teaching Unions before announcing a country wide directive around schools in general. The announcement has left schools without clear expectations, without a structure for managing this. We understand that many Local Authorities and schools will now have to seek the skills and information to figure this all out themselves. We believe that this uncertainly will lead to decisions that could adversely affect the health of children, teachers, families, and vulnerable people in their communities. We do not want a repeat of the mistakes in respect of care homes.

In addition, it breaks the consensus across the four nations in the UK and shows little regard for regional variation or for impacts on inequities in health outcomes for everyone, and educational outcomes for children. Educational opportunities are a powerful determinant of long-term health outcomes.

The SHA believes that the education sector has been systematically under-resourced and discouraged by this Government since 2010 under austerity, which leaves many schools with insufficient staff, increasing class sizes and inadequate environments that are less able to meet the stringent conditions to enable them to open as safely as possible in such a short timescale.

We believe that the Government should have considered the following:

  1. How risks would be minimised, and benefits maximised:
    1. In the school environment, such as through safe distancing, handwashing, and other logistic measures to minimise transmission of COVID19, where staffing levels may not be sufficient and school buildings are not always suitable. Children use their bodies to learn.
    2. To children, in particular those in deprived neighbourhoods, in vulnerable groups, children from BAME families, and those with special needs. There is no clarity on alternative arrangements that could have been much more robust to safeguard, and to ensure their nutrition, learning and emotional needs. This should not rely on schools to provide these solutions now
    3. Allowing for the full autonomy of schools and their local authorities within their safeguarding obligations on an area basis
    4. To other groups, such as teachers, communities, and vulnerable groups, and weigh these against the benefits and risks to the wider society
  1. How harm would be minimised, and benefits maximised:
    1. To children who may be missing education which is likely to have a long-term impact on those from more deprived neighbourhoods and those who are less likely to have received equitable support at home
    2. To children who become infected, including asymptomatically and to their immediate household and contacts
    3. To the wider community, especially those that have had a high incidence of COVID19 and remain at high risk of further outbreaks and resurgences. These have disproportionately affected more deprived communities and those with a high proportion of BAME people
  2. How the overall public health response would support this move:
    1. How potential school outbreaks would be identified and managed in the absence of a fully functioning test/ treat/ isolate programme, particularly as some businesses are reopening at the same time.
    2. How schools will be supported by local public health services unless further resources and decision-making powers are decentralised to allow a robust and appropriate and rapid local multi-agency response

The SHA believes that this decision has been reached without a clear rationale on the benefits and risks, and without demonstrating that the 5 key tests have been met:

Test one: Making sure the NHS can cope

Test two: A ‘sustained and consistent’ fall in the daily death rate

Test three: Rate of infection decreasing to ‘manageable levels’

Fourth test: Ensuring supply of tests and PPE can meet future demand

Fifth test: Being confident any adjustments would not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS

We would add a Sixth: A fully functioning test/ treat/ isolate programme

The SHA believes that the decision has been reached without sufficient consultation with key stakeholders and before the 5 tests have been fully met. In addition, the National Education Union has set 5 tests specific to educational settings, and we support their belief that in many areas these have not been met.

We expect a more supportive response from the Dept for Education including investment into online learning and into a revived Sure Start model.

The SHA believes that schools should be reopened at the right time but that the Government should make the best efforts to ensure that there is a consensus for when this should happen based upon relevant expert input rather than political pressure.  This has clearly not been achieved, as it has been in other countries that have gradually opened schools.

We encourage Local Authorities and Academy Trusts to follow the example of LAs such as Liverpool, Haringey, North of Tyne, Hartlepool, and Brighton – and devolved governments in Wales, Scotland, and NI – in making it clear that they will not reopen schools until they feel it is safe.

Sources

Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak updated 18th May. Department of Education for England

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-school-closures/guidance-for-schools-about-temporarily-closing

NEU five tests for Government before schools can re-open

https://neu.org.uk/neu-five-tests-government-schools-can-re-open

ONS figures reveal 65 COVID-related deaths in education workforce

https://schoolsweek.co.uk/ons-figures-reveal-65-covid-related-deaths-in-education/

Which occupations have the highest potential exposure to the coronavirus (COVID-19)? ONS May 11th https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/whichoccupationshavethehighestpotentialexposuretothecoronaviruscovid19/2020-05-11

Coronavirus (COVID-19) related deaths by occupation, England and Wales: deaths registered up to and including 20 April 2020 May 11th https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/causesofdeath/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19relateddeathsbyoccupationenglandandwales/latest

https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-doctors-back-teachers-fears-over-schools-reopening?fbclid=IwAR2JD0Np1x_lgG49xo1Hig4T9ozNto36vsG09Ue-mvAtMrTvhWVyegtphBE

Prof John Edmunds

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/john-edmunds-tells-lords-decision-to-re-open-schools-is-political-1-6660526?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social_Icon&utm_campaign=in_article_social_icons

Prof Devi Shridhar, Professor of Global Public Health, Edinburgh Uni &  Ines Hassan.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/20/british-schools-science-children-education-testing-tracing

https://www.newschain.uk/news/young-children-will-still-socially-distance-school-health-chief-says-8334

Schools re-close in France after 70 new Covid cases following re-opening  6-11yr classes. NB. French schools starting age is 6 not 3.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/coronavirus-france-school-cases-reopen-lockdown-a9520386.html

Comparative school age starts

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.PRM.AGES

NB. Denmark is also 6 and easier to manage s/d. long term impacts of formal learning too soon

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029435-000-too-much-too-young-should-schooling-start-at-age-7/#

Formal learning in early years linked to criminality in teens

https://www.res.org.uk/resources-page/the-impact-of-school-starting-age-on-teenage-criminality–evidence-from-denmark-.html

Posted by Brian Fisher on behalf of the Policy Team.

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