Preventing Covid from disrupting education

"To let it rip through schools will result in another winter of disrupted education as pupils self-isolate." Cllr Sarah Nield on Brighton and Hove Council explains how the spread of the Covid-19 virus could be curbed in schools this autumn, on the condition that proper ventilation systems are implemented.

Sarah Nield

In Brighton and Hove, we are still experiencing a high number of confirmed Covid-19 cases every day. Yet our schools are about to go into the new term with little to no protection against coronavirus. We’ve written to the Government to demand better.

From the beginning of the pandemic the Government’s response in schools has been totally inadequate. When other countries invested to make their schools more Covid-safe, even allowing them to spread into sports stadiums to allow small ‘bubbles’ and social distancing, the main tool our schools were given against outbreaks was the sledgehammer one of sending big, whole class or year-group ‘bubbles’ home every time there was a single Covid case. The result has been that each wave of the virus has brought massive disruption to education, with the most disadvantaged children the worst affected.

But all the data tells us we’re not out of the pandemic yet – and our youngest age groups have the least protection, as vaccine eligibility for 16-17 year olds has only just begun. As a city with a young population profile, we know we are at particular risk of an autumn/winter Covid surge. The bubble system with its subsequent disruption is not viable in the long term, but schools are going into the new academic year having had this blunt tool taken away from them, yet no finer tools given to replace it.

Without measures to halt its spread we fear Covid is about to rip through our schools. This weekend, the Government announced it will be providing CO2 monitors to schools from September. But this goes nowhere near far enough. It’s hard not to feel like our children and young people, having been inadequately protected from the start, have now been abandoned. 

Schools are being treated like a chickenpox party – but Covid isn’t chicken pox. While for most children and young people Covid-19 is thankfully a mild or asymptomatic disease, for a minority it will result in serious illness or death. Data shows that at times close to 50 children a day are being admitted to hospital with Covid-19; furthermore, a survey from the Office for National Statistics suggests 34,000 children in the UK are currently suffering from long Covid. 

To let it rip through schools will result in another winter of disrupted education as pupils self-isolate – also taking it back to family members who then face disruption, sickness and time off work.

We know how Covid spreads and what we can do to lessen the risk. Letting this happen is completely irresponsible. Covid is an airborne disease – it spreads in droplets and aerosols and we already know how to stop it. Our own public health messaging already advises that people need to ensure spaces are well ventilated – and many indoor venues are already looking at air purification systems.

Other countries are taking responsibility – Scotland is starting the new term with masks and a £10m investment in CO2 monitors to check adequate ventilation. New York State is investing to put 2 HEPA filter units in every classroom. Our government is only now starting to procure monitors – but they aren’t providing the means to act on what the monitors find. CO2 monitors work as a proxy measure to show if a room is adequately ventilated, whereas HEPA filters, such as those provided in New York, remove virus particles from the air.

Crucially, measures from other countries have come with the investment and funding that is needed to make new systems work and get them in place, fast. After years of cuts to school budgets, which are now stretched beyond belief, the government needs to wake up to the urgency of the situation and put the resources and support behind our schools so they can truly take action – rather than pass the buck and assume schools can carry the cost. This is about all of our health – and it deserves proper funding.

What’s more, if we want our communities well and healthy, we can’t have another cold UK winter where the only ventilation solution our schools are being offered is advice to open the windows (if they’re not painted shut) and freeze. We need proper ventilation and purification systems and a start to term with all possible precautions in place, including the return of masks (which can be removed if cases reduce). 

Schools are in an impossible position. They are already facing incredibly stretched budgets and they deserve support. Young people are being abandoned to face this still-new disease, and there’s no adequate explanation why. We have a responsibility to protect our young people. Why is our government determined to shirk it?