Is it safe for children to go back to school?
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In her latest column, Clare Flintoff - chief executive of ASSET Education, which runs a number of Suffolk schools - asks what the evidence shows about the risks of children going back to school.
Is it safe to return to school? This simple question unfortunately has no simple answer and different opinions are dividing parents, schools and young people, as well as scientists and members of the government.
It might be best to admit that we don’t know. Nobody knows and nobody can know, because the situation we are in is unique and without precedent.
We can take an educated guess and base that on scientific evidence. But the evidence is often weak or lacking and the scientists don’t always agree.
We do know that any releasing of the lockdown and reopening of schools is likely to result in a rise in the reproduction, or R, rate.
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But we need to open schools, children need an education and families need to be able to get back to work. Keeping the R rate below one and making the right decision at the right time is key.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has been providing scientific and technical advice to the government throughout the Covid crisis.
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It recently published modelling has been used by the government to inform the decision to open schools from June 1.
The group modelled seven different ‘returning to school’ scenarios, all of which understandably resulted in small increases in the R rate but, confusingly, none of which were actually selected.
So we don’t know what the impact will be of bringing back the youngest children (four to seven-year-olds), as well as the 10 to 11-year-olds in their final year at primary.
Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer and a member of SAGE, has written reassuringly to school leaders to say that: “There is no indication currently that the school setting is a greater risk than other settings and a possible signal that it may be safer.”
Her statement is supported by evidence from Asia, which suggests that school closures have little impact on the rate of transmission, but evidence from the UK is lacking because schools have been largely closed.
On May 28, we received a final report from the Independent SAGE group, ‘When should a school reopen?’
This is another eminent group of scientists, not working directly for the government, expressing a contrasting and persuasive view that June 1 is too early.
It estimates that delaying for another two weeks halves the risk that a child will become infected and delaying until September is less risky still.
It claims that staying at home is about half as risky as going to school at any point in time.
For many parents, waiting until September will be an option and a choice they will make. Many others won’t have that choice.
Some will balance the risk and decide that, for their children, missing out on the experience of school will be more damaging to them in the long run. It is a personal decision, one which every family must have the freedom to make without judgement from others.
Throughout this crisis, our schools have been doing their bit to support families whatever their circumstances. Our staff have provided childcare for critical workers and a safe haven in school for our most vulnerable children.
Teachers have been working extremely hard providing full days of learning remotely, giving feedback and keeping in contact with their pupils. We will continue to provide home learning for the foreseeable future
Whether we fully agree or not, the government has stipulated June 1 and we will step up to do our bit.
The first two weeks will be an anxious time given what we know about the data and the risks. We will not be able to open more widely with any confidence until we know that the R rate is decreasing, both nationally and locally, and we have more information about infection rates in the communities that our schools serve.
One day soon, I hope we can say with confidence to all of our families, that it is safe to return to school.