Schools

More than a Million School Children in England Alone Face Heightened Covid Restrictions

19 months on from the beginning of the pandemic and schools in England are still far from normal. Some have switched to remote learning ahead of the October half-term due to concerns about increasing ‘cases’ and now, 17 local authorities are insisting that stricter measures should be (re)introduced, affecting 1,098,349 pupils at 3,250 schools. The Telegraph has the story.

Councils across the country have reintroduced face masks, bubbles and staggered break times and stepped up self-isolation rules for youngsters. …

Headteachers have been told by ministers that many of the restrictions in place in the last academic year are no longer necessary. However, as cases rise in schools, local public health teams are increasingly encouraging schools to ramp up their measures. …

Nine Maidens Academy, in Cornwall, moved to remote learning at the start of the week, while Admiral Lord Nelson School in Portsmouth closed its doors on Thursday owing to a “rapid” rise in cases.

A dozen councils are advising secondary pupils in their area to wear masks in communal areas at school, and several have introduced more stringent self-isolation rules for children.

This week, Walsall Council advised primary schools to reintroduce bubbles and staggered lunch breaks, and moved all ‘non-essential’ events online. Windsor Council has also told schools to avoid mixing classes or year groups and to cancel assemblies.

Union leaders have repeatedly called for more restrictions in schools, with Kevin Courtney, the Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, claiming the Government’s failure to introduce stricter rules such as face masks is “irresponsible”.

The National Association of Headteachers has urged ministers to bring back rules that would see healthy children kept at home if a sibling tests positive.

But ministers have been warned that parents are “despairing” and their patience with the Government has “worn out”.

Molly Kingsley, a Co-Founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said: “Children have been disproportionately burdened by these pandemic restrictions for too long. Now adults are back to normal and the Government ought to be worried about the detrimental impact this is having on children. Parents are really despairing about this.”

Government guidelines say children should only self-isolate if they are showing symptoms or have a positive PCR test result. But councils including Calderdale, Cheshire East and Suffolk have brought back self-isolation rules for children if a sibling or other member of their household has tested positive.

Meanwhile, other councils say children need to self-isolate for three to five days if a family member has Covid, then take a PCR test and only return to school if it is negative. 

Worth reading in full.

Have Continuing Covid Restrictions in Schools Left Children Feeling Unfurnished, Permanently Waiting for the Upholsterer?

by Dr. Sinéad Murphy

Students spilling out of one of the large secondary schools in Newcastle are all wearing masks again. Evidently, that school at least has revived its requirement for masking, on account of rising ‘case’ numbers among teenagers in the city.

And worse: the BBC reported that on September 30th as many as 2.5% of those enrolled at English state schools were exiled from school altogether for reasons to do with Covid.

The ease with which schools are reverting to covering children’s faces and excluding those who ‘test positive for Covid’ (an entirely unscientific description) makes one wonder whether there is an affinity between our institutions of education and the masking and distancing of the Covid era.

Covid is not responsible for everything that it has exacerbated. Measures taken by schools against it have certainly diminished the personal and palpable content of children’s lives – people in masks might as well be anyone, and nothing on a screen offers much of sensory stimulation. But is neglect of the personal and palpable in fact a general principle of our schools? Is this what explains their complacent revival of masked and remote learning?

* * *

After one-and-a-half years of almost no school at all, our little boy with autism is now attending for three days in the week. We have two reasons for his reduced take-up.

First, the support teacher with whom Joseph has a good relationship, who knows him well and can communicate with him and cares about him, works at the school for three days every week, the same three days on which we are choosing to send him in.

Second, Joseph can only really learn from what is in the world, to be touched and smelt and tasted and heard and seen; the understanding that he gains during the two days in the week on which he accompanies me to the supermarket and the swimming pool, and makes shopping lists and kneads bread and goes to the door to pick up the mail, is not achieved by the most inventive of institutional strategies.

But in the meeting at Joseph’s school at which the new arrangement for his attendance was discussed, it was evident that the real justifications for it were not admissible.

Schools cannot allow that one teacher might be more appropriate than another – the ‘role’ is all, and anyone should be able to play it. And schools cannot accept that there is a possibility for involvement in the world that none of their representations of it and none of their simulations of it can ever hope to match for enlivenment of body and mind.

Last year, during the few weeks that Joseph could be at school, we kept him at home on days when his support teacher was unable to be there. It was made clear at the meeting that this personal arrangement would no longer be encouraged, that a new appointment was about to be made of a teacher trained in the support of children with special needs who would shadow Joseph’s teacher and be ready to step in for her in the event of absence.

And when I attempted to explain how quickly and well Joseph learns from moving about with purpose in the world, I was asked whether it would be possible for me to take Joseph to a museum or a gallery during our home-schooling days, as that would provide excellent documentary evidence that ‘off-site’ learning really was taking place.

So little do our schools place any value on the personal that a total stranger, with no understanding of Joseph’s idiosyncrasies and with no care for him at all, is judged as the equivalent of a woman who has known and liked him for three years.

And so little do our schools place any value on the palpable that the best substitute that they can find for themselves is another institution in which the experiences available are plucked from life and suspended in space and time for contemplation at a distance.

Small wonder that the masks are taken up so very easily when teaching and learning are not supposed to be personal anyway, and small wonder that everything switches to remote so very smoothly when the museum and the gallery are what count as the optimal ‘off-site’ learning environment.

* * *

But children with autism are a special case, we might think; their requirement for personal attention and palpable experience is part of their specific disability.

Is this true? Or is the intolerance of anonymity and of abstraction that defines autism in fact manifest in many who manage to pass muster at school and elsewhere?

Almost pass muster, at any rate. The NHS website includes descriptions of two conditions that are reported to be on the rise among young people in the U.K.: ‘depersonalisation’ and ‘derealisation’, which are disorders comprised of just that craving for the personal and the palpable that characterises those with a diagnosis of autism.

‘Depersonalisation’ and ‘derealisation’ are judged as ‘mental health’ issues, often subject to pharmaceutical treatments. But are they really ‘mental health’ issues, or are they entirely human responses of anxiety and disaffection in the face of ever-increasing anonymity and abstraction?

If they are such human responses, then schools’ active disregard for the personal and palpable is contributing significantly to their concerning increase, which increase must surely be partly responsible for the growing number of children being referred for diagnoses of autism.

The question arises, then, as to whether our schools are at least contributing to driving our children onto the ‘spectrum’?

It is a drastic allegation. But then, these are drastic times. And our children are coping with a drastic diminution of what may reasonably be regarded as the fundamentals of human life: the personal and the palpable, other people and the world.

* * *

It is an established philosophical theme: that human beings are irreducibly situated; that there is no baseline human life which is then overlain with circumstantial content; that human life is circumstanced all the way down.

Martin Heidegger summarized this view by defining human being as “Dasein” and “Mitsein” – being-there and being-with. What makes human life human, for Heidegger, is the dual fact of that life being always in a world with which our bodies are woven and always with others with whom our understanding is given and built up through interaction.

“Dasein” and “Mitsein” are abstract terms, as are ‘being-there’ and ‘being-with’. But what Heidegger intended to communicate with them was not so much that human life is in a world with others, but that our lives are in this world with these others. The claim is an existential one and not merely philosophical. Our human lives are personal, Heidegger meant. And our human world is palpable.

If Heidegger was right, then any erosion of the personal and the palpable is an erosion, not of the variety of life nor of the joy of life but of the humanness of life. For, to be human is to be there in a world that can be touched and tasted; and to be human is to be with people we know and understand and love.

Those who are not appalled at schools’ masking and distancing of children may assume that we can be with masked others and there in a remote world. Against this assumption, we can only appeal that it is less isolating even to be alone than it is to be surrounded by a sea of masked faces, and less awful even to be in a strange place than it is to be screened off and at a distance.

In favour of this appeal, we can point to the rise in diagnoses of ‘depersonalisation’ and ‘derealisation’ in our young people, together with the rise in their medication – prescriptions for anti-depressant medicines for those under 17 hit an all-time high during 2020, up 40% from five years before.

* * *

When Dickens’s Paul Dombey – pale and slight and destined to an early grave – first arrives at the boarding school to which his misguided father has sent him, he is left waiting in the study for someone to show him to his quarters. Weary and forlorn, with an aching void in his little heart, Paul is described as feeling as if he had taken life unfurnished and the upholsterer were never coming.

It is an affecting scene, of abandonment to a world without familiar sights and sounds and smells, peopled with strangers whose faces are not known.

I think that children with autism often feel like little Paul (who, as it happens, does not socialise normally with other children and is described by other characters as ‘old fashioned’). They feel as if life is bereft of what is really meaningful: of daily routines that are not to be departed from and that are entered into by all around; of familiar enduring objects; and of the faces of those whom they understand and who understand them. It is why they are drawn to small corners, why they clamber to sit behind you on your chair so as to be cushioned tightly between a warm person and a supporting world – one of Joseph’s very first words was ‘cozy’.

The responsibility of those of us who care for children with autism is to try to make them more cozy: to gather around them as much of meaning as we can; to furnish them with personal and palpable content; to establish routines and interact with objects and befriend people so as to thicken their being-there and being-with – to be the upholsterers of their lives.

But all children need what children with autism demand. All children feel ‘depersonalised’ when there are not people around them who really care, and all children feel ‘derealised’ when the world does not stimulate their senses. All children wish that the upholsterer would come.

Instead, what are we doing? We are doing the very opposite, stripping our children’s lives of what scanty furnishings remain to them. What people they have around, we are masking. What world there is left to touch and taste and smell, we are screening off. We are turning their young hearts into aching voids, with all outside so cold, and bare, and strange.

There is a medical experiment currently unfolding in schools, on account of which we ought to feel grave concern.

But there is an existential experiment unfolding there too, an experiment in removing the human content from the youngest human lives, as if they had taken childhood unfurnished and have no chance of cozy at all.

Dr. Sinead Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

Councils Running “Vaccination Webinars” in Effort to Get Consent from Parents to Jab Their Children

Amid reports of a shaky start to the roll-out of vaccines for healthy teenagers – which could now last well into the Christmas period – councils and local health officials have started giving “vaccination webinars” which are intended to persuade parents to give their consent for the ‘jabbing’ of their children. The Guardian has the story.

Headteachers have called for more resources to speed up the scheme as it becomes clear that the Government’s target for the programme to be completed by half-term will be missed.

Public health teams in Stockport and Oldham have advised schools that Covid vaccinations sessions will run until mid-to-late November. Schools elsewhere, including in north London, Watford and Staffordshire, have been told that they will not be visited by vaccination teams until next month. Other headteachers are still waiting to be given a date. …

Geoff Baron, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There is increasing frustration among school leaders about delays to the rollout of Covid vaccinations for 12-15 year-olds. We are at a loss to understand why the Government has not placed more focus on ensuring this happens as quickly as possible.

“The main issues appear to be where healthcare teams don’t have enough staff on hand to vaccinate so many students at once, and where demand for the vaccine has outstripped supply.”

Councils and local health officials are meanwhile running “vaccination webinars” to persuade reluctant parents to give consent for their children to be jabbed in school. Official take-up rates have yet to be released, but health officials have expressed concern that if they follow the pattern of adults, children in disadvantaged areas will be less likely to be immunised and therefore more likely to have their schooling disrupted.

Parents across the country, including the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Greenwich and Merton, and in Leicestershire, are being invited to webinars to put concerns to clinicians and vaccine professionals. At a session last week by Barnet council attended by about 100 parents, health officials were quizzed about whether children who have already had Covid and have natural immunity should still be jabbed and why the U.K. has embarked on vaccinations for children when other countries have not. Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, and possible changes to girls’ menstruation cycles were also discussed. Some families raised fears that their refusal to give consent would not be respected.

Health officials reassured families that only pupils with “explicit parental consent” would receive the jab on school vaccination days. They said “processes” were currently being devised for administering the jab to children who want it but do not have parental consent and are assessed as capable of understanding the decision-making process and health implications – known as the “Gillick competence”.

Worth reading in full.

Local Councils Still Encouraging Schools to Ramp Up Restrictions

Many local councils are still under the impression that it is not safe for schools to return to normal and are pushing for the return of face masks (which Nadhim Zahawi hasn’t ruled out) and other measures to ‘combat Covid’. If they succed, this will “make a mockery of the Education Secretary’s plans to keep children in the classroom”, says the campaign group UsForThem. The Telegraph has the story.

Local councils have been accused by parents of employing “militant Lefty” health chiefs who are advising schools to ramp up Covid measures to control the spread of the virus in schools.

Headteachers have been told by ministers that many of the restrictions which were in place last academic year are no longer necessary. However, as cases rise in schools, public health teams have been called in to advise that measures are stepped up.

Devon County Council has said it is now “encouraging” all secondary school pupils to wear face masks in communal areas, while City of Wolverhampton Council is also asking students to do so. 

Cumbria County Council’s Director of Public Health has told children to self-isolate if one of their siblings tests positive for the virus. They say pupils should get a PCR test after three to five days and only return to school if they get a negative result.

This contradicts national guidance, which says pupils should be off school only if they test positive for Covid-19 or are showing symptoms.

Meanwhile, Staffordshire County Council has given teachers a list of “recommended controls” that can be used to prevent Covid outbreaks, which includes bringing back bubbles to limit contact between pupils as well as staggered lunch and break times. The council said these were measures that schools “may potentially want to consider on a case-by-case basis”.

Haringey Council in London said “additional temporary preventative measures (such as bubbles)” were being put in place in schools with rising cases. And Peterborough City Council wrote to parents this week to remind them that headteachers have the right to “refuse access to school to protect other pupils and staff from possible infection with Covid” if they believe a pupil has symptoms.

Wigan Council’s Director of Public Health has introduced a “suite of measures” after a rise in cases at a local school, including face masks in the classroom and asking siblings of children who test positive to isolate.

Ministers have been urged to “rein in” local public health directors and ensure the children’s education is prioritised.

Molly Kingsley, Co-Founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said: “Public health teams appear to be too quick to impose disproportionate restrictions on children’s education and lives again. The Department for Education needs to crack down on councils and schools who are overreaching.

“It is really depressing that we are barely one month into term and we are already seeing these restrictions creep back into schools. This will probably get worse and worse and will make a mockery of the Education Secretary’s plans to keep children in the classroom”.

Worth reading in full.

Education Secretary Reveals that ‘Plan B’ for Schools Includes Mask Mandates

Schools will not reintroduce the policy of ‘bubbles’ to protect pupils against coronavirus, Nadhim Zahawi says, but he hasn’t ruled out a return of face masks. The Telegraph has more.

He said he had contingency plans to keep schools open, but told Sky News: “I don’t want to return to bubbles because actually, you saw the fall off in attendance which really does harm mental wellbeing, mental health of children.”

Mr Zahawi did not, however, rule out the return of the wearing of masks in the classroom in England.

He said: “We’ve got a contingency plan, as you would expect me to do… it contains lots of contingencies, including masks, absolutely.”

The bubble system, which led to whole year groups being sent home to self-isolate for 10 days because one of their classmates tested positive, was scrapped by the Government after more than one million pupils were kept off school in July.

The controversial approach was stopped on July 19th, as Boris Johnson announced that the “obvious way forward” was testing pupils rather than sending large numbers of children home to self-isolate. …

The mandatory wearing of face coverings in schools and colleges was scrapped in May, but Government guidance says that directors of public health could advise schools to reintroduce them if cases spike.

Worth reading in full.

Covid Cases Fall After Schools Reopen In Spite of Widespread Predictions to the Contrary

Covid infections have plummeted despite fears that the new school term would fuel an autumn surge, according to the latest ONS data. The Daily Mail has more.

One in 90 people in England had the virus last week, with around 620,100 infected in total, testing by the Office for National Statistics revealed.

This is down 18% from a fortnight earlier, when one in 70 tested positive and estimated total infections stood at 754,000.

The weekly ONS survey, based on random swab testing of 150,000 people, is seen by the Government as the most reliable measure of the epidemic.

In a further boost for hopes that the pandemic may be over, Government scientists said the R rate – the average number infected by someone with the virus – may have dropped below one for the first time since March. R is between 0.8 and 1 in England, meaning the epidemic is shrinking.

ONS study leader Kara Steel said: ‘Infection levels have decreased in England for the first time in several weeks, though rates remain generally high across the UK.

‘It’s encouraging that infection rates have continued to decrease among young adults, possibly reflecting the impact of the vaccination programme.’

Infections are highest in secondary schoolchildren, with around one in 35 testing positive, reflecting the fact that many in this age group are yet to be jabbed. But the ONS report shows cases have decreased or remained flat in every other age group.

Worth reading in full.

Advice for Parents Concerned About the Vaccination of Their Healthy Children

The Covid vaccine roll-out for healthy 12-15 year-olds is due to begin this week, but scientists remain concerned about the likely side effects. Some teachers tell me their schools still aren’t fully aware of the role they are supposed to play – “I can see it becoming a minefield”, said one teacher at a school in Yorkshire – and there seems to be some confusion among parents about the power they hold. Can they withhold their consent for the vaccination of their children or not?

Parents will be sent consent forms but only, it seems, as a formality since children who are deemed ‘competent’ (the assessment of which contains no set of defined questions) will be able to overrule the decisions of their parents anyway. This is of a piece with the Government’s decision to push ahead with its roll-out despite being told by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) that “there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms” of Covid vaccination in healthy teenagers and that – given the small risk Covid poses to healthy 12-15 year-olds – the “margin of benefit… is considered too small”.

The JCVI is “generous” in its assessment, according to an executive at a pharmaceutical company writing for the Daily Sceptic. (He, by the way, believes vaccines are among the “three greatest medical innovations”, so could hardly be labelled “anti-vax”!) Responding to the data, he says there is a “serious enough” risk of children developing myocarditis after vaccination (inflammation of the heart muscle, the long-term consequences of which aren’t fully understood) whereas the benefits of vaccination are “not well quantified” by the JCVI. The body also fails to properly consider the risk of other conditions following vaccination.

Professor Adam Finn sums up the situation by saying the vaccination of children would not – in normal times – have been approved because of the possible risks. He believes that parents are justified in waiting to allow their children to get ‘jabbed’ until these risks are better understood. But therein lies the problem. What – if anything – can parents do to delay the vaccination of their children?

Scottish Teachers Did Not Face an Elevated Risk of Severe COVID-19 When Schools Were Open

It’s been known since early in the pandemic that children’s risk of death from COVID-19 is extremely low. However, proponents of school closures have long argued that keeping schools open would put teachers at significant risk.

Back in January, six teaching unions urged the Government to “pause” school reopenings. They argued that returning pupils to classrooms while the virus was still spreading would expose education workers to “serious risk of ill-health”.

However, figures published by the ONS later that month cast serious doubt on the unions’ claims. Between March and December of 2020, the COVID-19 death rate among education workers – adjusted for age and sex – was “significantly lower” than that among the general population.

The highest death rates were observed among taxi drivers, machine operators, security guards, restaurant workers, and social care staff – i.e., in working class professions.

One potential criticism of the ONS report is that the researchers took an average over ten months, and schools were closed for much of that time. Perhaps the risk for teachers would have been much higher if schools had stayed open?

A new study published in The BMJ confirms that Scottish teachers were not at elevated risk of severe COVID-19 even when schools were open.

The authors analysed a large dataset comprising all the confirmed cases in Scotland up to June 2021, as well as a large sample of controls matched for age, sex and location. This dataset included over 25,000 teaching staff.

The authors’ main finding is shown in the figure below. Periods of interest are the autumn term of 2020 and the summer term of 2021, since this is when schools were open. In both periods, teachers’ risk of hospitalisation was not significantly higher than that of the general population.

The authors also estimated more complex models that controlled for a range of demographic characteristics, and confirmed there was no significant difference between teachers and the general population during the periods when schools were open.

This is consistent with the Swedish study which found that keeping primary and lower-secondary schools open had little impact on the spread of COVID-19.

One could reasonably argue that in-person teaching qualifies as an ‘essential’ service, especially if we’re talking about younger children. Given that teachers were at no greater risk than the general population, the unions’ case against in-person teaching falls apart.

Fury as Government Green Lights Vaccines for Healthy Kids

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said in a House of Commons speech tonight that the vaccination of healthy 12-15 year-olds would go ahead from the beginning of next week – and confirmed that children, not their parents, would have the final say about whether to get jabbed. MailOnline has more.

Mr. Zahawi also reiterated the safety of the vaccine for children, saying the decision to offer the jab to 12 to 15 year-olds had followed advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and had been “unanimously approved” by the U.K.’s Chief Medical Officers.

“We will now move with the same sense of urgency we’ve had at every point in our vaccination programme,” he added.

It comes as parents, experts and teaching unions today warned of tension in schools after the U.K. signed off on plans to offer Covid jabs to healthy 12 to 15 year-olds – which will see children get the final say on whether they are vaccinated.

Around three million under-16s are due to start getting their jabs from next week after Chris Whitty endorsed the move today, claiming it would help prevent outbreaks in classrooms and further disruptions to education this winter.

Doses will be largely administered through the existing school vaccination programme and parental consent will be sought.

But children will be able to overrule their parents’ decision in the case of a conflict if they are deemed mature and competent enough, which has caused fury.

Angry parents fumed against the move to leave the decision with young children who “can’t even decide what they want for tea, never mind” a vaccine, which carry small risks of side effects such as heart inflammation.

Professor Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading who is in favour of jabbing children, warned that giving youngsters the final say could lead to pupils being bullied by their peers into taking the jab.

He told MailOnline: “It will cause rows I think… You may end up in a situation where a minority, it will probably be the unvaccinated, get bullied and excluded by other children.”

Earlier headteachers revealed they had already received letters from pressure groups threatening legal action if schools take part in an under-16 vaccination programme.

The teachers’ union NAHT demanded urgent reassurance medics will be responsible for concerns about consent and vaccination rather than being left to schools, which could lead to tension with parents.

Children’s rights campaign group Us for Them said it needed a “cast-iron guarantee” from the Government that all parents would get the final say on whether their child is vaccinated.

Professor Whitty revealed today that children will be able to override their parents’ decision if they pass a “competence assessment” by the medical professional charged with administering the vaccine.

Under decades-old medical law used for other routine vaccines, youngsters get the final say if they are judged to have sufficient intelligence to be able to fully understand – and therefore consent to – vaccination.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Sarah Knapton, the Science Editor of the Telegraph, points out that Chris Whitty’s recommendation was distinctly lukewarm, which is bound to create confusion among parents.

Parents to Keep Children Away from School to Stop Them Being Influenced on Covid Vaccination

Parents say they will keep their children at home if (as seems likely) the Covid vaccine roll-out is extended to 12-15 year-olds to stop them from being “peer-pressured” into getting ‘jabbed’ because they fear children will be given the final say on the matter. The Telegraph has the story.

Family groups said that the law appears to give children the ultimate say over vaccination, with the confusion causing panic in families. …

“We have seen an incredible amount of concern among parents about the suggestion that parental consent for children as young as 12 may either be overridden or not needed if you are relying on Gillick competence,” said Molly Kingsley, the co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem.

“We have heard a lot of parents saying that if it happens they will keep their children off school for the duration of any vaccination programme.

“Were vaccination of children to happen on school premises without fully respecting the need for parental consent it would really prejudice parents’ trust in schools.”

Guidance circulated to NHS trusts says that most 12 to 15 year-olds should be deemed “Gillick competent to provide [their] own consent” over jabs.

That refers to a 1985 legal decision which ruled that a teenage girl could obtain contraception without her parents’ involvement. 

Children who are deemed “Gillick competent” can give consent themselves, meaning that permission from parents would not ultimately be necessary for the Covid vaccine.

Worth reading in full.