On 2nd February 2021, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus held an evidence hearing in respect of transmission in schools. Parents United submitted a 60 page dossier of evidence to the panel in advance of the hearing, the prefacing statement and report of which can be viewed here.
In addition to an impressive range of experts, two members of the Parents United Facebook group gave brave testimony on their experience of being pressured by their schools and local authorities to send their children to school, despite being Clinically Extremely Vulnerable themselves.
We have been delighted to see that the care and attention given by the APPG on this matter has already begun to build public understanding of the issues many of our members face.
Parents United have worked with and supported many parents with these issues, alongside Public Interest Law Centre, details of which were included in our evidence submission to the APPG. We would advise any families who find themselves in this position once schools reopen to inbox our Facebook Page for support.
The APPG also heard evidence from Dr Lisa-Maria Muller, Education Research Manager at the Chartered College of Teaching, who highlighted issues around lack of resources for children to access on-line learning, the wide variety of support which teachers have had to provide to their communities including bereavement support, and the impact of last minute changes and media perception on the mental health of teaching staff. In response to a question from Baroness Brinton, Dr Muller also detailed the importance of clear guidance to school leaders in respect of applying attendance policy throughout the pandemic.
Clinical evidence was given by Anthony Costello, Professor of International Child Health and Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, Dr Sarah Rasmussen of Cambridge University and Dr Deepti Gurdasani of Queen Mary University of London. It was confirmed that there is wide ranging, international evidence of substantial transmission in schools, and that school closure is one of the most effective interventions to reduce the R rate.
Dr Guadarsani explained the evidence children play a significant role in transmission of Covid-19: the ONS Infection Survey shows children aged between 2 and 12 are twice as likely to be the index case within a household than an adult, while those aged 12 to 16 are 7 times more likely to bring infection into their homes. Dr Guadarsani cautioned against the over-reliance on flawed evidence which has been highlighted in support of keeping schools open, and argued that there is now a large volume of reliable, consistent and strong evidence of the role of children in transmission.
This increase in risk was said to be compounded further by children being two times more likely to pass infection on to other members of the household, and the imperative to make schools safer in order to limit their impact on spread of infection between households to facilitate pandemic control. Dr Guadarsani also expressed concern about the impact that more transmissable new variants will have on the spread of infection, and emphasised the need for stricter safety controls to address this.
Anthony Costello emphasised that “children spread this disease, they carry this infection”, that their role in transmission has been under-estimated, and that we should treat children as being a similar level of transmission risk as adults. He also addressed the recent ONS finding that 13-15% of children continue to experience symptoms 5 weeks after testing positive for Covid-19. Professor Costello went on to say that Independent SAGE – of which he is a member – will be writing to the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation to argue that current guidance which excludes most children from vaccination should be reconsidered. Long Covid in children was addressed at the APPG on Coronavirus on 26th January, with compelling evidence given by members of the Long Covid Kids, who continue to campaign for awareness and support.
Speaking further on vaccination, Professor Costello supported the proposal that teaching staff should be prioritised for vaccination, and gave a number of reasons: school staff have the opportunity to spread Covid-19 between age groups, and teachers and support staff are being asked to return to work before many other occupations and without protections such as social distancing and masks. He also argued that vaccination for school staff would help to maintain continuity of education for children and young people, which has previously been disrupted in part by the need for teachers to self-isolate.
When asked what needs to be done to make schools safe, Professor Costello pointed to the advice of both the World Health Organisation and Independent SAGE. Both organisations call for the use of mitigation measures such as ventilation, face masks, hand washing, outdoor learning and filtering indoor air. On when schools should open, Costello referred to the work of Professor Karl Friston of University College London. Friston proposes that schools in areas with a prevalence of below 100 cases per 100,000 of the population should open, with a sliding scale of mitigation measures dependant on the area being high, medium or low risk according to the level of infection locally.
Parents United were particularly pleased to see discussion of aerosol transmission and mitigation (around 1 hour 24 minutes), the inadequacy of the previous close contacts policy in determining who should isolate. We were also delighted to see discussion of cost-effective air filtration and carbon dioxide monitoring, reduced class sizes and bubble caps. See our presentation on these concerns with Professor Jose Jimenez from the University of Colorado, Boulder below.
Key messages to government around school opening from the expert witnesses at the APPG on Coronavirus meeting included: advice on the operation of schools must be based on “solid quantification of risk”, that support for online learning must be improved, and that a dichotomous debate around schools being closed or open is unhelpful. The strongest message of all was that the key to preventing further school “closures” – and the harms which result from them – is the implementation of effective measures to mitigate risk of in-school transmission.
A video of the full hearing can be viewed below. Further details on our legal action in support of Clinically Extremely Vulnerable parents who have experienced extreme pressure to send their children to school despite legitimate concerns for their own health – as mentioned by Dr Rasmussen – can be found here.