Schools and Covid-19: the government is letting us down

Young boy wearing mask against Covid sites on a school step
Boy with mask – Kerry Sikkema. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Covid-19 case numbers are once again rising in Brighton and Hove, and now we also have the uncertainties of a new Covid variant – Omicron – to contend with. On the plus side, almost two years into this pandemic, some things about this virus are no longer a mystery. We know how it spreads. We know how to combat this spread. We also know where it is spreading the most.

So why, when by far the highest Covid numbers are in school-age children, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that children’s mixing in schools is now driving and prolonging this pandemic, are schools still the places where few measures are in place to prevent transmission?

The latest government guidance calls for a return to mask-wearing in secondary schools, but only in ‘communal areas’ like corridors – as if the virus can’t find young people who are sitting still in class. Masks are also not recommended for primary-age children – although this is where Covid numbers are now the highest of all. Like all of the government’s Covid guidance for schools, these new recommendations are both tokenistic and too late.

Over 69,000 children have ongoing Covid symptoms

Most children who catch Covid will experience it as a mild or even asymptomatic illness. But a small percentage will not be so lucky. In the UK, over 1,000 children a month are currently admitted to hospital with Covid-19. Since the start of the pandemic 113 have died. Over 69,000 children have ongoing Covid symptoms, and 10,000 have now been living with Long Covid for over a year. ‘A small percentage’ of the enormous number of children being exposed to this virus still adds up and up.

We have now observed the trends in the pandemic for long enough to know that a wave of Covid which starts in our schools does not stay there. Children bring the virus into their homes and into their communities. Numbers rise first in school-age children, then in their parents’ age group, then their grandparents’. Herd immunity and hybrid immunity are discredited pipe dreams: we now see people catching Covid for the second or third time. Round and round it goes: each transmission a chance of death or life-changing illness, and a chance for the virus to mutate.

Scientists are clear on how the virus spreads – it is airborne – and so we have the knowledge to fight it in our schools. We are hobbled by our government’s refusal to do so. We also have effective vaccines. The decision to give them to our 12- to 15-year-olds was delayed and half-hearted, allowing misinformation to take hold. Now 12–15s are finally to be given a second dose, these mistakes must not be repeated, and a swift approval of vaccines for younger children, followed by an efficient and immediate roll-out, is needed now.

Other countries are getting to grips with ventilation

The vaccines we have are good, but not perfect, and so our children need layers of practical protection too. Covid-19 spreads in droplets and aerosols. The bigger droplets fall to the ground, and social distancing helps us avoid these, but aerosols fill the air and linger in busy indoor spaces, spreading the virus wherever people congregate and breathe shared air for long periods of time – classrooms being one very good example.

Until we take airborne transmission in schools seriously, we have no hope of pushing back against this virus. Masks whenever there are cases in a school need to become the norm, as they are across Europe and elsewhere. Though more needs to be done, there are also examples of other countries getting to grips with ventilation. In New York, before the beginning of the September term, every school was given two air purifiers in every classroom. Back in 2020, the German government invested 500m euros to improve ventilation systems not just in schools but in all public offices, museums, theatres and universities.

The government is refusing to give schools the tools they need

Schools need to be given the funding to upgrade their ventilation and to filter their air. Being told by the government to open the windows all year round is not a realistic or sustainable solution, particularly in the depths of winter. The government is running a trial of high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to clean virus particles out of the air in schools, but is so far unwilling to fund their roll-out beyond special schools. In this, again, their action is inadequate and pointlessly delayed.

The government’s refusal to give schools the tools they need to combat Covid affects us all. We need to curb transmission in the places where we see it occurring. We know how to do that. What is missing is the support of an effective government, with the strength and commitment to lead a proportionate, targeted pandemic response.

Sarah Nield is Lead Councillor for Schools in Brighton and Hove

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