Best laid schemes? Are schools “COVID safe”?

Possibly in a “limited and specific way”.

Helmuth Von Moltke, commander of the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian war (1870) made the practical observation that – in military matters – “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force” – usually quoted as the less subtle, “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy”.

And so it is with Coronavirus and the widespread reopening of schools.

Von Moltke’s point – that plans have to be adapted to fit realities, that pressing on regardless can lead to disaster, and that it is always useful to have at least one Plan B and some defence in depth, appears to have passed the UK government by.

Daily COVID infections rose slowly and inexorably in the UK from the low point of 352 on 6 July; and reached a seven day rolling average of 1338 by September 1st; after so many people had eaten out to help out in August.

In the two and a half weeks since schools have reopened, this has risen to 3003 per day on a seven day rolling average; and there’s no doubt at the moment that the only way is up.

Schools reopening will not be the only factor here, but it stands to reason that having more nearly 9 million students and 750 000 educators going in and out of work every day is going to have an impact, leaving aside what happens when they get there.

Government guidance on this is based on out of date presumptions and groundless assertions. “Now, the circumstances have changed. The prevalence of coronavirus (COVID-19) has decreased, our NHS Test and Trace system is up and running and we are clear about the measures that need to be in place to create safer environments within schools.” (1)

To take these one at a time.

1. Circumstances were changing even as they were writing this. The prevalence of the virus is increasing again sharply now and is already above the level it was when the initial lockdown was launched in March; and the R rate is above 1 everywhere, which means that the genie is getting back out of the bottle. The last update of this guidance was on September 10th, when this was already apparent; so they are marching boldly forward with their eyes firmly shut. The death rate is now also beginning to rise. The WHO is warning of a significant increase in infections as we go into the Winter.

2. The problems with Test and Trace are yet another “World Beating” fiasco. Outsourcing a public health imperative – to SERCO for goodness sake – was never a good idea. It is the reverse of Deng Xiao Peng’s dictum “I don’t care whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”. In this case the government seems less concerned with whether their cat catches mice than if it makes money for some of their friends. For this to work, the tests need to be available plentifully and locally and the results turned round quickly. Suggesting to someone in Telford – if they eventually get through -that the nearest available test is in Aberdeen – indicates how thinly this system is stretched. Average waiting time for a test result, if you can get one, is now 83 hours, not the targeted 48. Schools have been allocated 10 tests each to avoid the first problem. Nevertheless, as COVID symptoms are similar to more regular illnesses, a precautionary approach will mean that everyone in the Protective Bubble will have to be sent home at the first sniffle and wait for nearly a week for the test to confirm whether this indicates COVID or not. As this is extremely disruptive, most schools are sending home the individual with symptoms, but not the whole bubble until a positive test result has come through. As COVID is asymptomatic in its most infectious period, this is likely to mean that the infection will take hold within the bubble on a more widespread basis. Even sending home individuals is nevertheless already having an impact on attendance – as presentee-ism among staff and students (coming in when ill) is no longer feasible as a way to keep the show on the road. Much larger numbers of students are being sent home, in some schools after a precautionary temperature check on their way in. This is leading in some schools to teachers being told that they have to set up online lessons for students at home at the same time as in person lessons in the building – simultaneously presumably.

3. The new restrictions on social gatherings – no more than six people together – do not apply in schools because schools are supposed to be “COVID safe” managed environments. There are a number of problems with this.

Some discrepancy here? This is for a medium sized school.
  • It is now not contested that secondary school students and upper primary students over the age of about 10 both contract and spread the virus just as much as adults do. The government puts that like this “There is no evidence that children transmit the disease any more than adults”. Indeed. Nor any less. Nevertheless, the restrictions on class and bubble sizes in place in the Summer have now been relaxed to an absurd degree. “In secondary schools, particularly in the older age groups at key stage 4 and key stage 5, the groups are likely to need to be the size of a year group to enable schools to deliver the full range of curriculum subjects and students to receive specialist teaching” My emphasis (1) A whole year group can be up to 300 strong for a large Secondary School. As Bubbles go, that’s a big one. So, students with the same capacity to contract and transmit the virus can mix with up to 50 times as many people inside school as they can outside. This reflects a failure by the government to act on NEU proposals to requisition additional space and employ additional staff so distance can be maintained and Bubbles kept small.
  • As it is down to individual school managements to make their own plans, there is a wide divergence in what is being done. Many school leaderships have worked immensely hard, risen to the challenge and set up rigorous social distancing, one way systems, have teachers not students moving between classes to minimise corridor contact, and strict book marking protocols – where books are kept for 72 hours before being marked and another 72 before being returned, all parental contact is via zoom and masks are worn wherever necessary. Others have not. In a borough somewhere in London, students in more than one large Secondary are still moving in herds (without immunity) between lessons, masks are not worn, teachers asking about book marking protocols are being told – in one case – to “just get on with it”, whole year group assemblies – physical ones – are taking place (with 120 students) and there is even a suggestion in one school to hold a Musical Performance at Xmas, with rehearsals in the meantime.

The NEU has agreed a checklist with UNITE, UNISON and the GMB to hold school managements to the strictest possible implementation of government guidelines and will support its members in balloting for action where these are breached. But in the absence of a national Zero Covid strategy it is hard to see how even the best laid plans will cope with intensifying contact with the hostile viral force. The Plan B being urged by the NEU, particularly the emphasis on preparing for blended learning and resourcing children without access to laptops, is a bottom line to fall back on (2); but it is becoming increasingly apparent that we need the elimination of the virus if any recovery at all is to viably take place and the sacrifices made in the Spring and early Summer – not least by our children – be squandered.

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/guidance-for-full-opening-schools
  2. https://neu.org.uk/coronavirus-neu-national-recovery-plan-education

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