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School, Covid

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Fully re-opening schools on March 8 is dangerous and risks another increase in infections and deaths, argues David McAllister

In a repeat of last spring, education workers are once again faced with mounting pressure from the government and its friends in the media to fully reopen schools before it is safe. The date being heralded is 8 March, which is less than three weeks away.

While it is true that the lockdown measures introduced at the beginning of January have significantly reduced the infection and death rates, these still remain relatively high. The spread could certainly have been brought down much quicker if other key measures were included. Non-essential workplaces have remained open, which has had the effect of pushing up school attendance, while early years settings have remained fully open.

The other factor is of course the catastrophically high infection rate we started with in January due to months of dither and delay by this government. This allowed the daily cases to climb to 60,000 by the beginning of January, with an estimated 1 in 50 people infected.

While schools struggled with rising infection rates throughout the Autumn term, particularly amongst secondary school children, the government repeatedly ignored warnings from scientists and the NEU, and refused to introduce a circuit breaker to bring infection rates down. They even went so far as to threaten schools with legal action to stop them closing early for Christmas. 

The longer lockdown we now need is entirely a result of government neglect. Ignoring education workers and scientists has cost lives.

What is also deeply concerning is a report from Imperial College London which indicates that the virus is spreading most among children, particularly in the primary age range. It has been suggested that this is due to a greater proportion of primary school children still attending school. As well as the obvious risk this poses to the wider community, the increase in hospitalisation amongst children illustrates that this puts them at serious risk too, despite the common rhetoric that Covid doesn’t really affect children.

We also shouldn’t be blind-sided by reports of the R number falling below 1. When the R number is 1 or higher, the virus numbers are growing.  It was only last week that it fell below 1 for the first time since last July, while leading experts are warning that a full return to school could bring it back up again. To push for a full reopening of schools in such a delicate and dangerous situation is irresponsible in the extreme.

There is also the issue of the vaccine. While the rollout has been largely successful so far, there has been no talk whatsoever from the government of vaccinating education staff before a full return. This must be a central demand. It makes no sense at all to push school staff back into crowded buildings and classrooms without the protection a vaccine provides.

Sections of the media are, once again, playing their part in pushing for a full return before it’s safe. The Daily Mail has rolled out the classic trope of ‘militant teachers’ being obstructive, while the Daily Mirror recently ran the headline ‘We just want to go back to school’ in order to paint a picture of children’s wellbeing and futures being held to ransom by education staff and the NEU.

This is obviously an ideological offensive designed to undermine support for the NEU and we should argue hard against it. It is disgraceful to use children’s wellbeing as a prop to force them and education workers into such a dangerous situation. We need to put the task of saving lives front and centre. The pandemic has been exhausting for education staff, children and families, but it has been the government’s repeated neglect of lockdown measures which has thrown us into this vicious cycle of imposing and easing restrictions in the first place.

This is not just about the safety of schools, but of the surrounding communities. Schools are often the most densely populated buildings in the community. The more the virus spreads inside a setting, the more it will be able to spread outside it, via public transport and family members.

The NEU’s online mass meeting at the beginning of January, together with thousands of NEU members deploying Section 44, was decisive in forcing the government to halt a disastrous full return after Christmas. We need to use that mobilising capacity once again to demand no full reopening until it is safe, and push for a better strategy in which no more lives are gambled away.

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