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4 April 2022

Two years on, we can no longer accept so many children off school because of Covid

The government talks about “learning to live with Covid” but it has not learned anything about transmission in schools.

By Kit Yates

My son is in Year 2 at primary school. He has not had a single year of his formal education that hasn’t been disrupted by Covid. The school situation in the UK is shocking. As a parent I’m fuming. And as a scientist I’m flabbergasted.

In the first lockdown we begrudgingly accepted the school closures. We did what we had to do to protect each other from Covid and bring rates down. Both of my children suffered my substandard attempts at homeschooling while I also tried to keep on top of a full-time job. Their education suffered as a result, as did the education of millions of others. Then in July 2020, pubs reopened before all pupils were back in schools – which speaks volumes about the government’s repeated claim that education is its “biggest priority”.

The school closures continued. In January 2021, we knew enough about how to mitigate Covid’s worst impacts to not need to shut them – but we didn’t act; we didn’t mitigate transmission in classrooms or take sufficient measures to keep on top of coronavirus in the community. And now, two years on from the start of the pandemic, we are seeing a continuation of the same problem. More than 200,000 pupils were off school on 17 March because of the virus. Overall attendance in England has dropped to less than 90 per cent, with around a quarter of these absences Covid-related. 

Indeed, pupil absences are not the only reason for the current Covid-related educational disruption. Schools around the country at the moment are seeing huge numbers of staff off sick with coronavirus. Staff absences for all reasons are now up to around 9 per cent – levels not seen since early January – which in turn leads to disrupted learning opportunities and in extreme cases, classes, year groups or even whole schools being closed.

Perhaps England’s failure to mitigate transmission in schools is unsurprising, given how little successive education ministers seem to understand about Covid transmission. Last week, the Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi touted “attendance advisers” as part of plans to reduce the number of pupils missing school. Yet there has been little mention of reducing Covid transmission in classrooms, despite evidence accruing that ventilation can effectively reduce its transmission. Furthermore, it is astonishing that vaccination was only opened up to 5-11-year-olds in England on 2 April. This comes months after comparable countries had offered the safe, effective protection against Covid to the same age group, and months after the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved the vaccine for use in the UK.

The irony of all the government’s talk of learning to live with Covid, especially in an educational context, is that it has failed to learn important lessons that could be used to safeguard our children’s education. It has failed to stress the importance of ventilation and vaccination as mechanisms for preventing infection and transmission in schools – instead, it has emphasised that the roll out for 5-11-year-olds is a “non-urgent” offer. By removing free community testing, it has also failed to recognise the value of granting pupils the agency to find out whether they are positive and to act accordingly.

And while the government fails to learn the lessons of educational disruption from two years of the pandemic, our children will continue to suffer disruption to their learning opportunities.

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