Back to school: Trepidation ahead of 'highly likely exponential increases' in Covid infections

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is a sense of trepidation, inevitability, and anger about the “highly likely exponential increases” in Covid infection rates as schools return this week and next.

Just as Department for Education guidance has ended the requirement for schools to operate bubbles and for the use of face masks (DfE, 2021a), government scientists have concluded that: “It is highly likely that high prevalence will be seen within schools by the end of September 2021.”

A consensus statement from Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), a sub-committee of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), published on August 27, concludes: “Schools will represent a high proportion of remaining susceptible individuals and it is highly likely that exponential increases will be seen in school-attending age groups after schools open.

“When schools re-open, the mitigations in place to limit transmission within schools will be much reduced compared to the spring and summer terms. Additionally, the prevalence of infection in the community and school-age groups will be higher than in May 2021.” (SAGE, 2021)

The statement adds that it would be “sensible” for the government to plan for this expected spike in infections and subsequent self-isolation.

Government guidance for schools (DfE, 2021a) focuses on maintaining increased hygiene and ventilation, but removing bubbles and face coverings. Secondary pupils are to be tested twice on-site during the week of their return to school and then expected to test twice a week at home until the end of September, when this will be reviewed.

Likewise, all school staff (primary and secondary) are asked to undertake twice weekly home testing until the end of September, when this will also be reviewed.

The DfE has warned schools that any re-introduction of measures such as wearing of face coverings “should not be taken lightly, only be for a defined period, and should account for the detrimental impact on the delivery of education”.

Furthermore, schools are no longer required to carry out contact tracing and students are no longer required to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone with Covid. If they do get contacted by NHS Test and Trace, then they will be advised to take a PCR test.

The DfE has published a contingency framework which maps out measures schools can take in response to outbreaks of coronavirus (DfE, 2021b). The threshold for taking contingency action is considered to be either when:

  • Five students or staff who are likely to have mixed closely, test positive for Covid within a 10-day period.
  • Ten per cent of students or staff who are likely to have mixed closely test positive for Covid within a 10-day period.

The guidance puts testing at the heart of any contingency response, urging schools to consider attendance restrictions and mask-wearing only as short-term or last resort measures.

School leaders are nervous about the coming months. Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, is predicting a chaotic term ahead as schools implement local measures to counter rising infections.

“It is extremely worrying to see scientific advisors concluding that exponential increases of coronavirus infections are highly likely in school-age children and demonstrates that the situation is on a knife-edge as the new term approaches. We simply cannot have another term of disruption and it is vital that the government is ready to respond rapidly to any upsurge in infections with more support.

“There is a real danger that this (the DfE’s contingency framework) will become the normal state of affairs with various measures being implemented on a local basis. This is clearly a recipe for chaos, and the government cannot once again allow a situation to develop in which attendance unravels and children experience yet more disruption.”

She urged the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to rule “sooner rather than later” about the possibility of offering vaccinations to 12 to 15-year-olds.

The current advice is only for vulnerable children aged 12 and over to be offer the vaccination. It has also advised that all 16 and 17-year-olds should be given their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

The National Education Union said that the SAGE statement was a “rebuke” to education secretary Gavin Williamson who, it says, has done “next to nothing” to prepare for the possibility of a large rise in cases this term.

Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “It is only right to recognise that a large percentage of the school community is unvaccinated, and that this will remain the case for a while yet. We cannot just assume a return to normal from the start of term. The bringing together of a school community of several million will inevitably lead to a rise in case counts.

"During the summer term Gavin Williamson was conspicuous both by his absence and his silence, when cases were rising so fast in schools. It is perfectly clear to education professionals that the current safety requirements for schools are not sufficient to prevent a rise in cases come September.”

There has been welcome for the DfE’s £25m investment in CO2 monitors to help schools keep tabs on indoor areas which require ventilation, but critics say even this is too little, too late as contracts have not even been assigned with roll-out set to take many weeks.

Mr Courtney added: “To prevent a sharp rise in cases, the watchwords must be ventilation, air filtration, masks, vaccines and vigilance. Gavin Williamson needs to support schools to consider face coverings from day one of term, alongside social distancing where possible, and special consideration for vulnerable staff. The danger is not that schools and colleges will be slow to act, but that government is."

The National Association of Head Teachers accused the DfE of having a “strategy of hoping for the best”. James Bowen, its director of policy, added: “As SAGE has rightly pointed out, the government has chosen to remove many of the mitigations that were in place in schools last year, and it has done very little to look to replace these with alternative safety measures. Its reason for removing bubbles and isolation requirements was to stop children missing school. But if an increase in cases means more children getting ill, lost learning could actually increase for many.”

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