Government accused of ‘standing by while Covid cases surge’ in schools

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The British and Scottish governments have been warned that they must strengthen Covid-19 safety strategies for schools, with calls for better ventilation and other interventions to protect workers as cases rise.

Trade unions in England wrote to Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi over the weekend to raise the issue of reintroducing additional safety measures, while the Scottish Labor Party described the SNP government’s school ventilation strategy as “comical and dangerous”.

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In their letter, the five unions — GMB, Unite, Unison, the teachers union NASUWT and the National Education Union (NEU) — indicated that many local authorities have reimposed restrictions to address the recent rise in the number of cases.

Children in England between the ages of 11 and 16 have the highest Covid-19 positive rate of any age group, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

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The Office for National Statistics said about one in 15 children in school years 7 to 11 are expected to be infected with the coronavirus in the week to October 2, compared to one in 20 in the previous week.

Union leaders said a number of protection measures could be considered including social distancing measures, reintroduction of bubbles, avoiding large gatherings and bringing back face coverings in secondary schools.

NEU Joint Secretary-General Kevin Courtney said: “We are concerned that the government is standing idly by while COVID cases are increasing across schools.

“There is clearly more that needs to be done – and sooner rather than later – to prevent further massive disruption to children’s education, due to children contracting Covid-19 or the absence of Covid-related staff.”

The unions will also write to all local authorities and public health directors asking them to consider measures in their areas.

They warned that without such measures, the health of pupils and their education, as well as the health of their families and school staff, would be exposed to unnecessary harm.

“With the fast approaching winter and the continuing spread of Covid, a full range of measures must be deployed to keep schoolchildren safe – and that requires a high level of infections in schools,” said National Education Officer Jim Kennedy.

Avril Chambers, GMB’s national official, warned of “the continued denial of facts on the part of this government.

“School staff have kept our schools open throughout the pandemic – they deserve to be kept safe and our children deserve their education not to be interrupted more than it already was. The Minister needs to act now.”

In response to the high infection rate among high school students, Sage member Professor Callum Semple said there was a risk that children in that age group could reach herd immunity through infection rather than vaccination.

“Reviewers usually say it’s silly to target herd immunity with a natural, wild-type infection, because that brings with it disease and damage to children from acute illness and potentially prolonged Covid,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said the measures currently in place “strike a balance between managing transmission risks… and minimizing disruption to education by removing the need for close contacts in bubbles for self-isolation and the wearing of face coverings.”

At the same time, the Scottish Labor SNP pushed to provide Holyrood with an update on school ventilation plans in which it asked to know what action would be taken in classrooms that fail air quality assessments.

In a statement on coronavirus in early August, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that £10m would be given to councils to provide carbon dioxide monitoring to all schools and day care services, as she said school ventilation guidelines had been strengthened.

But the SLP claimed that not enough had been done, and indicated that ozone disinfection machines had been purchased for every school in Wales.

Michael Marra MSP said: “The SNP’s ventilation strategy currently amounts to keeping windows open, which is both comical and dangerous.

“We simply can’t get the kids together in very cold classrooms this winter.

“Make no mistake – failing to act now will put our students, teachers and their families at risk.”

Education Minister Shirley Ann Somerville said the money for carbon dioxide monitoring was on top of the £90m of logistical funding already provided to councils.

She said local authorities have already reported good progress in addressing ventilation issues in schools.

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