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Thousands urge UK government to keep schools closed

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A letter from an NHS nurse urging the government to keep schools closed because of the health risks to staff and the wider community has attracted more than 7,000 signatures, as teachers described trying to maintain social distancing in primary classrooms as “almost impossible”.

Iain Wilson, an NHS nurse with two children at school in Lewisham in south London, who has experience of working with Covid patients, wrote to ministers: “Do not make us the global guinea pigs. It is self-evidently unwise to force hundreds of people into small rooms in small buildings during a pandemic.

“Some teachers have already tragically died from the virus, and we do not want to risk any more,” wrote Wilson, a member of the Keep Our NHS Public campaign, in an open letter to the health secretary, Matt Hancock.

The diverging approaches to school closures may stem from the considerable uncertainty around the extent to which children are playing a role in spreading Covid-19.

Children make up a tiny minority of confirmed cases – fewer than 1% of positive tests in China were children under nine. It is probable that a bigger pool are getting infected but only experiencing mild or no symptoms. Among those who have tested positive, nearly 6% developed very serious illness, according to an assessment of 2,000 patients aged under 18 in Wuhan, with under-fives and babies being most at risk.

A significant unknown is how infectious children are, assuming large numbers are getting infected. Early evidence suggests that around 50% of transmission in the pandemic at large has involved asymptomatic people and children could be among this group.

“It seems most plausible to me that they are being infected but are at low risk of developing disease,” said Prof Peter Smith, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “We know that for flu, children are important transmitters of infection, which is the basis for the flu vaccination programme directed at children, but we do not know yet how important they are as transmitters of coronavirus. So closing schools would be based on the assumption that they do make an important contribution to transmission.”

Rates of various illnesses are seen to rise and fall at the start and end of school terms. School holidays were thought to have led to a plateau in the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Also advised hygiene and social distancing measures, such as hand washing and reduced physical contact, just aren’t very effective in a primary school playground setting. So there is the potential for schools to act as a local fountain of infection for the surrounding area.

“Every mother and father knows that when kids go back to school they’re going to get hammered by colds and flus and sore throats,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.

This uncertain science has to be carefully weighed against the certain disruption and cost of school closures, including taking large numbers of doctors and nurses out of the workplace, and unintended consequences such as grandparents, who are among the most vulnerable, taking on childcare and facing greater exposure.

On Monday, as the summer term began with millions of children in lockdown, one headteacher described the challenge of trying to keep the small number of pupils currently in the emergency schools, which are open to vulnerable children and those of key workers, at a safe distance from each other.

“It’s almost impossible,” said Richard Sheriff, chief executive of the Red Kite Alliance, which runs nine primary schools and four secondary schools across Leeds and North Yorkshire. “We’ve got 56 children in one primary school this morning and the school is full because we’re using social distancing to keep them apart. Every time they move from a table, somebody comes and wipes it. Every time they use a badminton racquet, someone wipes the handle. It’s not easy.”

Pupils “returning” to school at home accessed more than a quarter of million lessons provided by the government’s new virtual academy, the Oak National Academy, which opened on Monday.

Created by more than 40 primary and secondary school teachers to keep children learning during the coronavirus lockdown, Oak aims to provide more than 180 lessons a week, with video tutorials and resources for teachers to support online learning already being provided by schools.

On its inaugural day, 140,000 students took part in an English lesson and almost 120,000 did maths, while the most popular single session was counting up to 10 for reception pupils, followed by reading comprehension for seven- and eight-year-olds. Poetry comprehension and Henry VIII were also popular.

lockdown

On Sunday the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, moved to quell continuing speculation about schools reopening to all pupils, insisting that ministers would not contemplate it until the government’s five tests for beating the pandemic are met, but headteachers and local authorities are worried about the continuing uncertainty.

The tests are: protecting the NHS’s ability to cope; a fall in daily death rates; reliable data showing decreasing infection rates; confidence in testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) capacity; and confidence that changes to the government’s approach won’t risk a second peak of infections.

Many in the sector remain concerned, however, about not just when but how a return to school will be effected, and there are fears that the longer schools remain closed, the greater the loss of learning, particularly for more disadvantaged pupils who may struggle to engage with online lessons.

“Schools are working hard to deliver the best learning possible to pupils at home,” said Jules White, the headteacher at Tanbridge House school, Horsham, West Sussex. “The reality is, however, that self teaching is very hard even when there is strong family support.

“Whilst many issues need to be resolved for schools to open more fully, we must begin to think about further prioritising children who struggle most with learning and/or come from disadvantaged circumstances. When it’s safe they must get back into schools in larger numbers than we are seeing at present.”

Wilson’s letter warned: “Until we know that children will not learn that their teacher has died because of an infection caught in their class, we should remain sensible and wait.

“The economic harm of keeping schools closed is significant – but is known. This means the government can act and intervene to mitigate this harm. We do not know about the harms of reopening schools yet.”

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