On 22 May, the Independent Sage committee — which was set up in response to the lack of public or scientific scrutiny of the activities of the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — published a report warning that the wider reopening of schools on 1 June risks spreading Covid-19 and causing a potential ‘second spike’ in the pandemic. Until the virus can be accurately monitored and controlled through a nationwide programme of community based testing and contact tracing, there must be no increase in numbers of pupils in school; the unions and educational staff must organise to ensure their essential demands are met. RUBY MOST reports
A growing number of councils are announcing that they will be advising schools in their local authority against the government’s plan to increase pupil numbers from 1 June. The government’s plan is that from this date:
- Nurseries, childminders, and other early years’ providers should open to all children
- Primary schools should open to all nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils
- All schools teaching secondary age pupils should bring in some face to face learning with years 10 and 12 from 15 June
- Schools must also remain open for children of ‘key workers’ and vulnerable children from any year group.
The prime minister’s old elite boarding school Eton will of course face no such demand to reopen, and will continue its programme of education online, including podcast versions of assemblies. Several multi-academy trusts have used their ‘autonomy’ from local authorities to fall in line with the government’s demands. The push to increase pupil numbers in state schools is part of the ruling class offensive to force more of the working class back into work, whatever the human cost.
Councils, unions, doctors reject reopening
On 15 May the British Medical Association (BMA), the union for doctors and medical students in Britain, backed the National Education Union (NEU)’s five tests before an increase in pupil numbers should be considered safe. The five tests are:
- Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases (with a sustained downward trend and extensive testing and contact tracing to keep it that way)
- A national plan for social distancing (including acceptable parameters for physical distancing and social mixing in schools, and appropriate PPE as needed in each school setting)
- Testing on a comprehensive and regular basis for children and staff
- A whole school strategy for protocols to be followed when a case is found in a school, to test the whole school or college and for isolation to be followed
- Protection for vulnerable staff and those living with someone vulnerable to allow them to work from home, and protection for vulnerable families.
Thousands of NHS staff also signed an open letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, published in April, calling for ‘strict widespread testing for suspected Covid-19, rigorous contact tracing and scrupulous adherence to quarantining’ before a wider return to schools should be considered.
Councils across the north of England from Liverpool, Hartlepool, Rochdale, Wigan, Stockport, Bury in Greater Manchester, and an increasing number of others have so far rejected the government’s order to increase pupil numbers from 1 June. Some have said they will push back the date of increasing pupil numbers as the infection and death rates in their local authority remains too high. Those with the worst infection and mortality rates are of course the areas with more low paid, insecure, BAME workers, those most oppressed sections of the working class who are being made to bear the unforgivable human cost of this pandemic as a sacrifice for profit. So far the unions have offered fine words and no fight, determined instead to ‘work with’ the same government trying to force members back to work. Those workers will have to fight on if the councils and unions back down in the face of government pressure.
Government fails the test
There is no nationwide tracking and tracing scheme, which Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove insisted on 17 May would be ready to launch the same month, after initial plans to roll out community-based testing and tracing was abandoned in mid-March. The government has now pushed back the launch of the NHS test and trace app to say it may possibly be up and running at the end of May, and that it might not be needed to provide a testing and tracing service. Asymptomatic parents, staff or children could easily spread the virus in schools before it is detected.
There is nothing like the level of required testing being carried out; the government has failed its own arbitrary pledge to test 100,000 people a day by the end of April, with figures so far only reaching the target by including multiple tests on the same person, and home tests which have been posted out but not yet processed. The government’s advice is that only children or staff who develop symptoms, and their families, will be able to be tested once pupil numbers increase from 1 June, which is no help for stopping the spread of the virus.
The government’s own guidance admits that social distancing will be impossible with the youngest children, but claims that schools will be able to keep transmission rates low by avoiding contact with symptomatic people, hand washing, and getting rid of any toys which are hard to clean. Schools have been made responsible for producing their own risk assessments and social distancing measures. Reported examples of social distancing measures which some schools have released to families include toys and books being removed from classrooms, children having to do their own first aid and personal care, children as young as four having to sit at desks one metreaway from others all facing the same direction, and only being allowed to use the toilet at set times. The question of how this will work with real children, who need comforting when they hurt themselves, and cannot be expected to learn anything without books to read or friends to interact with, is one of many the government refuses to answer. The advice states that PPE will not be needed in the school setting unless a child develops symptoms and cannot be kept two metres apart from staff until they are taken home to isolate. These measures are ludicrous and the plan to increase pupils is dangerous, reckless and must be resisted.
Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of BMA, in the letter of support to NEU’s Co-General Secretary Kevin Courtney said the BMA’s Public Health Medicine committee found the scientific evidence available on children’s susceptibility to and ability to transmit Covid-19 ‘conflicting’, citing one paper from New South Wales which ‘suggested that children were much less susceptible to serious illness but were more likely to have asymptomatic infection’, and a newer study from Berlin led by virologist Dr Christian Drosten which found ‘looking at viral loads in children suggest they are just as likely to be infected as adults, and may be just as infectious’.
The Office for National Statistics published data on 14 May from 10,705 swab tests, which found ‘no evidence of differences in the proportions of individuals testing positive for Covid-19 between different age categories’. Clearly this, along with evidence pointing to a possible link between Covid-19 and a rare inflammatory condition affecting children (up to 100 in Britain), are reasons to take every possible precaution before increasing the number of children in school.
Why reopen schools now?
When Johnson’s government reluctantly ordered schools to close from 20 March, to all but children of ‘key workers’ and vulnerable children, it marked the beginning of the lockdown measures which are finally starting to bring down the death rate and new infection rate for coronavirus. The government was forced to U-turn on its reckless and disastrous ‘herd immunity’ strategy, the aim of which chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 13 March was to allow the virus to spread to at least ‘60% or so’ of the population, after Imperial College’s modelling predicted it could kill 250,000 people and overwhelm the NHS. Vallance is the former president of research and development at British multinational pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a company which has admitted to bribing doctors, encouraging the prescription of unsuitable anti-depressants to children, and concealing data about life threatening side effects of its drug Avandia. GSK is in talks with the British government to produce 1 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine efficacy boosters. At the daily government briefing on 28 May Vallance suggested that social distancing of two metres may not be required, if other measures are considered, such as people being back to back with each other — this is not based on public health considerations, but business. Johnson said reducing the distance would be ‘particularly valuable in transport and clearly the hospitality sector’. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty contradicted this message, reinforcing that it is essential that even if people are meeting outdoors under the relaxed lockdown rules, that they should stay two metres apart.
When the extensive list of ‘key workers’ was published, more than 24 hours after the announcement that schools would need to remain open for these pupils, it was so broad that school leaders feared too many children would be sent to school, with insufficient space to keep them two metres apart, or staff to look after them. Businesses like pet shop chain Pets at Home used the vague guidance to argue their staff were ‘key workers’, and sent them letters so they could send their children to school and come in to work. Education Secretary Gavin Williams tweeted on 21 March that only parents whose ‘work is critical to our Covid-19 response’ should send children to school, but the broad guidelines remained. This would have allowed the blame to be placed on individual parents for selfishly sending children to school so they could work if numbers of children attending reached an unsafe level.
This did not happen, and many parents kept their children away from schools as advised, in fact very low numbers attended, including many children classed as vulnerable.
But the ruling class is clamouring to force the working class back into its allotted role. This is the primary function of state schools under capitalism.
Inequality in the time of coronavirus
Williamson and Gove, along with a right-wing media frenzy against ‘militant’ education unions preventing teachers from ‘doing their duty’, are using vulnerable children as a sickening ploy to force them to back down.
The same children, millions of whom now live in poverty after years of crushing austerity, have been utterly failed by the government throughout the lockdown, with entrenched inequalities becoming magnified by the effects of the pandemic. As a result of the government’s incompetent attempt to run its free school meals voucher scheme, a recent Food Foundation report, conducted a month after lockdown began, found 5.1 million people living in a household with children have experienced food insecurity since the measures were introduced. The report found that almost a third of children entitled to free school meals had not had any substitute through the government’s scheme. Run through an online portal created by private company Edenred, the scheme has seen delays of weeks at a time, with some parents still not receiving a voucher since the lockdown began, and many who did receive vouchers found they failed at the till, leaving families humiliated and hungry.
It should come as no surprise that, according to new survey data published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, of those from the poorest 20% of households are the least reassured about the safety of sending their children back to school — only a third of the poorest families were willing, compared to half of the wealthiest families. The wider reopening of schools is gambling with the lives of the working class and must be resisted.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 276, June/July 2020