Last month we wrote to James Cleverly, the new Secretary of State for Education, to urge the government to use the summer break to add vital protections to our schools in preparation for a hard covid winter ahead.
The summer term ended on the crest of yet another covid wave – the third so far this year. Figures for July from the Department for Education (DfE) showed pupil attendance falling to its lowest level since January, with 42,000 teachers and school leaders and 49,000 support staff also absent.
Any hopes that covid was going to settle down into just another seasonal bug have surely now bitten the dust.
The government’s current plan for our schools – to treat covid “like any other respiratory illness” – is not working.
For the past two and a half years, wave after wave of illness and disruption have crashed through our schools, leaving a mounting pile of problems behind them.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) now show teaching to have one of the highest rates of long covid of any profession.
DfE research shows more than a third of secondary schools and a quarter of primaries now reporting workforce challenges as a result of the ever-rising tide of long covid.
Children’s health is also suffering. The ONS Covid-19 Schools Infection Survey shows almost 1 in 50 primary school children and 1 in 20 at secondary school experiencing long covid. That is, symptoms following a covid-19 infection which have affected their day-to-day life for three months or more.
Many of course will recover from these symptoms but these are significant periods of time for so many young people to have their daily lives impeded.
And with one covid-19 wave now following so closely after another, many will be exposed to the virus again before they are fully recovered.
The problem of course with treating covid-19 “like any other respiratory illness” is that it isn’t like any other respiratory illness, no matter how much we want it to be.
It has become clear over the past two years that covid-19 is a multi-systemic disease capable of affecting organs and systems throughout the body.
It leaves a significant minority of sufferers with long-term health problems in the form of long covid and can cause brain damage and diabetes.
It also increases the probability of strokes and heart attacks and, we’re now coming to realise, is capable of evading immunity to cause reinfection several times in the course of a year.
For children and young people, the main issue of covid-19 is its transmissibility. Most who catch it will have mild or asymptomatic illnesses, with only a small percentage suffering more serious outcomes.
But because the virus spreads so easily in busy indoor settings like our schools, without protections a very large number of children will catch it in each wave. And a small percentage of a very large number soon adds up to a lot of largely avoidable health problems for our young people.
Of course, our schools are not just filled with young people. Lots of adults work there. Some are clinically vulnerable. Some are in their fifties and sixties. All are put at risk by being asked to work without protection from this virus.
The government urgently needs a new plan for schools. Covid-19 is airborne and spreads where people share air as they speak, shout and sing.
We wrote to the Secretary of State for Education to implore him to use the summer to implement the measures needed to bring down transmission in our classrooms.
We asked him to finally start the work of installing and/or upgrading ventilation systems in all schools. Staff cannot be expected to keep windows open in biting January winds and teach wearing their coats for the third winter running.
In our letter, we asked for HEPA filters to clean virus particles out of the air in every classroom: working alongside ventilation, this simple and effective technology should be in all schools by now.
On top of this, the use of FFP2 and FFP3 facemasks in schools needs to be encouraged whenever infection rates are high.
The provision of free lateral flow tests should also be restored for school staff and pupils, along with guidance for even asymptomatic pupils to self-isolate to break chains of transmission.
And there needs to be a push to increase vaccination rates in children and young people, particularly among 5 to 11-year-olds. The uptake in this age group is worryingly low.
Our third covid winter is coming and without action from government our schools will face another year of cold classrooms, huge heating bills and an ever-spreading virus and another term of sick children, staff absences and plummeting morale.
“Living with covid” has to be made more than a slogan. To live with the virus, schools need protections. Installing them at speed and with priority is the only realistic and sustainable plan.
We asked the government to use the summer break to implement it. To date we still await action – or even a reply.
Councillor Sarah Nield is the Green chair of Brighton and Hove City Council’s Adult Social Care and Public Health Sub-Committee, deputy chair of the Health and Wellbeing Board and a member of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee.