Fri, 22 May 2020
THIS week I want to use my column to address the proposed primary school opening for June 1. I should start by stressing that this date is provisional and is confined to Reception, Years 1 and 6.
So although schools have been asked to prepare, the confirmation of that decision is contingent upon the data showing the rate of infection and mortality continuing to fall and is kept under review.
However, it is fair to say that at the time of writing both are falling sharply and it may reasonably be expected that schools will open.
Although this is a horrible virus, the data now shows overwhelmingly that it is a very low risk to children.
Of the 34,000 deaths that have so far occurred, a tiny number relate to children under 15 and the evidence shows that they are likely to suffer with no – or only very mild – symptoms.
Moreover, evidence from the Office for National Statistics shows that those who are aged under 50 (without underlying health conditions) are also highly unlikely to become seriously ill as a result of the virus.
When schools were closed on March 23, the virus was spreading rapidly within the community and the Government’s purpose was to reduce the number of interactions between households.
We now know that that assessment was more or less correct, because the peak of the virus occurred around April 8, which suggests that it was at its most virulent about two to three weeks before that date – corresponding to the date of school closures on March 23.
The R (rate of infection) has now fallen from around three in late March, to below one, meaning that each person who is infected passes the virus on to less than one other person.
Moreover, the prevalence of the virus in society is much lower (currently at 0.27 per cent of the population) and the NHS is
operating well within capacity.
The Government is working hard on a vaccine and human trials currently under way at Oxford University are promising.
However, there are no guarantees and we have to accept that it may be a long time before there is a vaccine on the market (with Ebola it took five years), or indeed it may never come.
This means that the risk from the virus has to be balanced against the impact on children of being kept out of schools.
Data from the first week of April showed that around 50 per cent of primary children made contact with their teacher via homelearning.
Moreover, evidence from the Sutton Trust in April 2020 suggests that school closure has particularly serious implications for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The reopening procedure has been designed with the safety of staff and children in mind.
Class groups will operate as ‘bubbles’. Each class will be confined to no more than 15 children with a teacher (and in some cases a teaching assistant also).
That group will learn together, play together and eat together.
This will be achieved through staggered playtimes, dinner times etc, so that the group will not need to come into contact with other school groups during the working day.
If a child or adult in that group develops coronavirus symptoms, everyone in that bubble will be asked to stay at home and will be able to access a test.
The aim is to keep ‘household-to-household’ infection risks to a minimum and is intended to be the most proportionate and practicable way of supporting school reopening.