School COVID-19 safety poster in Sheffield. Photo: Flickr - Tim Dennell / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article School COVID-19 safety poster in Sheffield. Photo: Flickr - Tim Dennell / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

Parents want their children back in school, but government planning doesn’t guarantee it will be safe, argues Corinne Pearson

I’m writing this as a mother to two young children, a daughter of elderly parents and a sister to a teacher. Not only that, but I also write as a representative of 8,000+ parents, carers and school staff who share my concerns about the government’s return to school plans, and demand better, as part of the BRTUS: Parents United campaign group.

At the heart of this situation are the failings of a reckless and callous government that is prepared to sacrifice the safety of the many for the few. They are devoid of inspiration and determined to ignore the science when it doesn’t fit their narrative. Backed into a corner of choosing profit or health, and with no new ideas, they’ve opted for profit and so settled for “kids go back to school as normal: Now With Bubbles”. This is a complex issue but the government’s plan has some simple flaws:

1. The Three Cs.

The World Health Organization has unequivocally stated that the “Three Cs” should be avoided – Crowded places, Close-contact settings and Confined & enclosed spaces – and even emphasised that “the risk is higher in places where these factors overlap” – if that doesn’t scream “SCHOOLS” then I’m not sure what does?!

2. The trouble with bubbles part 1 – they’re too big!

Whilst in primary schools a bubble is usually the size of a class (about 30), in secondary schools, bubbles are far too big, the size of a year group (so in the hundreds). This is particularly concerning when Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, tells us that teenagers are at greater risk of contracting and transmitting the virus to one another and adults.

3. The trouble with bubbles part 2 – adults are exempt

The bubble is burst, in secondary schools in particular, as soon as teaching staff move around the school in order to teach another bubble.

4. The trouble with bubbles part 3 – no child is an island

The bubble is burst (again) as soon as a child sits down to eat tea with their sibling(s) that night (unless they’re twins who happen to be in the same bubble!).

5. Dropping our shields

For those who have been shielding since March, their clinical vulnerabilities have not disappeared, nor has the virus. Whilst the children themselves may not be shielding, their attendance at school may compromise the health and wellbeing of their vulnerable family members.

6. June was too soon

Chris Witty claims victory that there have been 30 school-level outbreaks (we at BRTUS: Parents United have evidence that this number is in excess of 100) but this ignores the wood for the trees; up to this point, schools have been open only under cautious and incredibly restrictive circumstances – with much fewer children and staff, meaning that social distancing was actually achievable in practice. The rate of school-level outbreaks will be much higher when these restrictions are relaxed in September – as Scotland is already seeing after only a week back at school.

7. Testing our patience

We have heard repeatedly that Test & Trace is a fundamental precondition for a safe return to school. The UK’s T&T was an abject failure, found to be illegal, and was ultimately abandoned. This precondition has not been met.

8. A school is not just a building

Whilst Chris Witty tells us that young children are at a much lower risk; this ignores the point that the average secondary school is also populated by more than 100 adults. The risk faced by these teachers, teaching assistants, support staff, cleaners, caterers and lunchtime supervisors must also be taken into account. Whilst physically attending their place of work is not unique to these people, interacting with thousands of people whilst doing so, without the opportunity to social distance and wear appropriate PPE, is a risk that very few will face.

9. There is no choice

Any parents who, for whatever reason, do not feel that it is safe for their children to go back to school in the short term, will face punitive fines. For some families, the “choice” may therefore be between fine-induced financial hardship or the health and wellbeing of their children.

10. There is no plan B

The government has had the last six months to develop a sustainable approach to opening schools. The only plan that is has come up with is effectively to return to the status quo, with no additional staff, resources or school capacity. Teachers, students and vulnerable members of the community will be our sacrificial lambs at the altar of capitalism.

There can be a plan B

In response to these failings, at BRTUS: Parents United, a grassroots, parent-led campaign group, we’ve devised a plan B in the form of a traffic light system similar to the approach recommended by Independent SAGE.

BRTUS: Parents United traffic-lights for COVID-19

Using this system would ensure that we get what we all so desperately need; a safe, sensible and sustainable return to school for everyone.

In recent weeks, the government has kicked its marketing arm into overdrive on this exact topic. On a daily basis we’re bombarded with empty reassurances that a return to school is completely safe – all upside with no risk. This is the same government that promised us a “world beating” Test and Trace system but delivered an unfeasible, illegal and costly mess. In September they’re trying to sell us that same snake oil again yet this time they’re encouraging us to feed it to our children. We cannot and must not trust them.

After all, to resist this reckless plan is to live by the Dominic Cummings code by “doing what any parent would do… protecting my child”.

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