#FreshAirSchools: Open Letter to UK Education Ministry Heads

On 10th February, Parents United created an open letter to all Education Ministry Heads in the UK as part of our #FreshAirSchools campaign.

The letter calls for a sensible, safe and sustainable approach to the full reopening of schools in 2021, which must include mitigation against airborne transmission, and a tiered system of mitigations matched to local risk levels.

Read the letter here, and add your signature using one of the two forms below – whichever fits your circumstances:

Open letter to UK Education Ministry Heads 

Wider Opening of Schools in 2021

For The Attention of:

Gavin Williamson MP, Secretary of State for Education

Peter Weir MLA, Minister for Education, Northern Ireland Assembly

John Swinney MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Scottish Parliament

Kirsty Williams MS, Minister for Education, Welsh Parliament

It is essential that the UK achieves effective suppression of Covid-19,and the safe reopening of schools plays an essential part in this.  A further spike in infections following the current lockdown would pose a range of unacceptable risks, including:

  • the proliferation of further variants, which threaten our reliance on current vaccines as a pathway out of the Covid crisis
  • compounding the already abhorrent UK death toll, presently standing at  around 117,000
  • increased numbers of people living with Long Covid, whose condition is poorly understood and may yet prove to cause permanent disability
  • further prolonged lockdowns, harsh restrictions, economic decline, psychological damage, and harm to the education and well-being of children

The previous full reopening of schools in September contributed significantly to the current wave.  Government data indicates that, when schools were fully open, school-aged children were twice as likely as the general population to be the index case within a household, with secondary school-aged students being 7 times more likely to be the index case.  

Schools implemented government safety guidelines to the best of their ability, with no additional funding to achieve this.  Sadly, the extent of cross-household in-school transmission demonstrated the inadequacy of the measures which were in place. The worthy objective of returning children to a stable and beneficial school environment was greatly disrupted; a direct result of the chaotic situation into which our education system was thrust.  The great uncertainty this precipitated for exam year students persists even now, and children of all ages were concerned that they would bring the virus home to their loved ones.

Families with Clinical Vulnerabilities could not reasonably have been expected to send their child to school, yet were refused home learning support, including once systems to provide such support to self isolating students were in place.  A considerable number of families who provided medical evidence to support their case for keeping their child at home had that evidence refused, and were subjected to coercive attempts to force attendance – fines, threats of prosecution and attempts to remove the child from the school-roll.  Not only has this approach caused families undue stress at an extremely difficult time, it has destroyed relationships with schools which once played a pivotal role in these families lives.

Throughout the pandemic, schools and local authorities have rightly retained powers to compel attendance where they have reason to believe this to be in the best interests of the child.  This should not prevent the majority of families – who do not pose any safeguarding risk to their child and may feel that they are coping well at home – having the opportunity to choose whether they wish to expose their child to the risks of a populated environment during a pandemic. 

This is particularly the case given the emergence of the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant, and other variants which may yet prove to be vaccine resistant.  Of additional concern is the Office for National Statistics finding that 13-15% of children continue to experience symptoms 5 weeks after receiving a positive Covid-19 test, especially given current lack of support or treatment for children living with debilitating Long Covid symptoms.

We must prioritise the health, wellbeing and education of our children and young people, whose experience of this pandemic during their formative years will undoubtedly have lifelong implications.  By necessity, the forthcoming full reopening of schools must be different. 

It is essential that the government:

  • take a tiered approach, similar to that employed in Norway.  Schools should be opened on the basis of local infection rates – not on a predefined and politically desirable date
  • apply effective mitigation measures within schools, on the basis of risk within Local Authority areas, as indicated by a Traffic Light System
  • Red – 100 – 50 cases per 100,000 of the population
  • Amber – 50-10 cases per 100,000 of the population
  • Green – 0-10 cases per 100,000 of the population
  • mitigate risk in high infection rate areas with smaller class sizes to reduce contacts, and the risk of airborne transmission. This could be achieved by the use of rotas, or by hiring more spaces and more mental-health and education staff.  These staff would also assist with vital emotional and social recovery, a prerequisite for a successful balanced catch-up curriculum. 
  • acknowledge airborne transmission as a significant route of transmission of Covid-19, and provide school-specific guidance and funding for mitigation, which must be drawn up in consultation with aerosol science specialists and building ventilation consultants.  Mitigations likely to be suggested include reduced class sizes, increased mask use, installation of ventilation systems or the use of portable HEPA filters, and C02 monitoring
  • continue to dis-apply section 444 of the Education Act and ensure that a comprehensive, fully resourced online learning program is available to every family who wish to continue supporting their child’s learning from home
  • close the digital divide by providing laptops and broadband to children who need them to support learning from home – whether or not this is by choice

Our nation’s sacrifice to suppress the most recent peak must not be squandered, and nor can it be repeated.  We owe it to the children of our country to provide safe spaces to learn, and a safe country to grow up in and inherit.

A full list of signatories can be found here.

Our new open letter Global Safe Schools: UK Response Letter can be found here.

Visit our #FreshAirSchools Resource Centre here.

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