This week, the Department of Health announced it wants primary schools to prepare to reopen on June 1; news that must, presumably, be music to some parents’ ears.
But there was huge outrage across the newspapers.
“[N]ot so fast”, warned The Guardian.
Others leapt upon the substandard performance of Osama Rahman, Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Education (DfE), who admitted the department had “not done any modelling” for risks at a committee hearing.
Educational unions were raging.
In a joint statement, they accused the government of “showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools”.
Individually they went further…
The National Education Union deemed the proposals “reckless”, and its joint General Secretary advised schools not to “engage in planning meetings”.
Paul White, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has even said the plans were “wildly optimistic, to the point of being irresponsible”.
But the only thing irresponsible has been their exaggerated rhetoric, which will only serve to frighten parents, and prevent the UK from moving forward sensibly.
Make no mistake, one completely understands why parents, teachers and even children themselves may have fears about the reopening of schools.
This is a deadly disease that can spread in crowded settings.
There are still many unknowns – and it’s important to be cautious.
Even so, we’ve reached the point where people aren’t taking in the wider statistical evidence on schools (nor what’s happening where they’ve been opening in other countries – despite the media saying we should copy Europe the other 99 per cent of the time).
The first thing that has become increasingly clear is that children do not appear to be badly affected by the disease as adults – if they show symptoms at all.
There have been cases of an inflammatory resembling Kawasaki Disease. Despite the newspapers heavily covering it, it is rare by all indications.
For the overall population, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has expressed a “high risk of confidence that the severity of the disease in children is lower than in adults and a moderately high degree of confidence that children aged up to 11 are less susceptible to it.”
Similarly, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) advises in its guidance on schools that: “[S]erious illness due to COVID-19 is seen infrequently in children” and “there have been rare cases of critical illness.”
Of course, we can never totally reassure loving parents that there is no risk – but the words “high degree of confidence” and “rare” are significant, comforting words from the scientific community.
(As an aside, it would help, in many ways, if there was more discussion around risks other than Covid-19 – to put the disease into perspective.)
Even more interestingly, there’s a suggestion the virus may not transmit as much as initially thought in schools.
There’s a tendency to assume that – because schools have lots of children – the disease will be passed around quickly, and brought back to parents, grandparents and other loved ones.
But there’s evidence that this is not the case.
The WHO has said: “To date, there have been few educational institutions involved in COVID-19 outbreaks, but from these studies, it appears that disease transmission was primarily related to social events linked to university life rather than transmission within classrooms. These studies also suggest that the introduction of the virus was likely to be an adult member of staff.”
And this is backed up by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), whose recent study concluded that “children are not substantially contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in their household or in schools.”
Furthermore, one Australian study examined the potential spread from 18 confirmed (nine students, nine staff members) cases to over 800 contacts in 15 different schools. It found that no member of staff contracted COVID-19 from the initial school cases.
Although the HIQA says its evidence is “limited”, it’s poignant in light of trends (or non-trends) elsewhere in Europe.
If children were super spreaders, one would perhaps expect there to be immediate and stark epidemiological patterns from Norway and Denmark, whose schools opened a month ago. There have been no obvious news reports if so.
Adult to adult contact seems the big danger.
In writing all this, one does not profess to be Einstein, nor an oracle.
No one knows everything about Coronavirus, and the opening of schools does have to slow, and careful.
But it’s hard to see how the DfE can go further on its protective plans – in light of the risks identified.
It has already told schools to cut down classroom sizes, and stagger break and lunch times – in case there are infections – along with other measures.
The National Education Union thinks this is “reckless”.
What seems more reckless, however, is not reopening schools – by exaggerating risk.
Their continued closure risks other huge societal problems, all of which seem to be downplayed – astonishingly – by the Left and liberals.
Indeed, yesterday in the House of Commons, Layla Moran, said to Gavin Williams, “To what extent has getting parents back to work been the main drivers (of reopening schools)?’ As if this was a terrible crime.
Health will always be paramount. But it doesn’t make economic or societal concerns trivial.
In fact, we are at a stage in the crisis where secondary factors have become dangerous in themselves.
Children missing out on education is a terrible thing.
And just as bad is their parents being economically incapacitated because of it.
These, in turn, have dreadful consequences on people’s lives, some of which extend to health.
So it is not as easy as the unions, and many others, have made out.
Reopening the economy for adults is an extremely difficult balance – because they have heightened risk, especially older generations.
But when scientists have “high confidence” that children are safe, we must press ahead with schools going back to normal.
That is “following the science”, not being reckless.