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@IndependentSage is calling for urgent action to address escalating infection rates in schools

  • Infection rates higher in secondary school pupils than any other age group with a 50-fold increase in cases among 11-16 year-olds since start of September
  • Education “severely disrupted”, says Independent SAGE, with more than 1 in 5 secondary school pupils absent from school last week 
  • Teachers given “misleading information” on health risks and “urgent action” is required to make schools safe for staff and students
  • Wide transmission circle of school children “can endanger parents and grandparents”, says panel of expert scientists
  • New consultation document released today by Independent SAGE sets out key recommendations to address safety in schools
  • Proposals include: “blended learning” for secondary schools in areas with high infection rates; secondary school children to be encouraged to wear face masks in classrooms; better classroom ventilation and warm clothing to be provided to children in need; and smaller classes in primary schools
  • Primary school tests should be cancelled, and secondary school exams replaced with assessment by teachers 
  • Independent SAGE guidance document on schools to be presented at livestreamed briefing for public and press today at 1.30pm.

INDEPENDENT Sage is calling for urgent action to address escalating infection rates in schools as new figures show that more than 1 in 5 secondary school pupils are currently absent from school in England. There has been a 50-fold increase in cases of COVID-19 for 11-16 year olds since the start of September, and infections are now higher for this age group than any other. Infections in primary school children continue to rise. This is causing “severe disruption” to children's education with 22% of children currently absent.

Teachers have been given “misleading information” about the health risks and the risks of contact on school buses and in playgrounds has “not been adequately recognised”, according to the panel of expert scientists, chaired by former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King.

In a new consultation guidance document released today and produced in collaboration with the EAGLE research group for education, Independent SAGE sets out key recommendations to bring down infection rates in schools. Proposals include “blended learning” (a mix of on-site and home-based learning) for secondary schools in areas with high levels of infection; secondary school children to be encouraged to wear good quality face masks in classroom and elsewhere in school; smaller classes in primary schools; and better ventilation with warm clothing supplied to children in need. 

The report also recommends that, where a positive case is identified in school, the bubble should form the basis for isolating contacts and self-isolation must not be restricted to children sitting next to each other or in sustained contact. All staff and students within a bubble should be tested where there are positive cases, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms. Staff who are clinically vulnerable should be enabled to work from home where possible.

In the interests of fairness and to reduce stress on pupils, Independent SAGE recommends that primary school tests be cancelled and secondary school exams replaced with assessment by teachers, with suitable moderation. 

“It is now clear that secondary school students can be infected and infect each other and adults, and this is at last acknowledged by the government's official advisers in SAGE,” states the report. “Children and young people at school tend to have a wide transmission circle which can endanger parents and grandparents. Whilst wishing to minimise disruption to children's education, stricter guidelines are urgently needed for reducing opportunities for infection.”

The report goes on to state that headteachers and staff have “frequently been denied key information and resources, and constrained by incoherent advice from central government,” and that the ban on schools rearranging holidays or switching to blended learning has exacerbated the problems. “The present situation in many of the worst affected schools and communities is characterised by confusion, secrecy, mistrust, fear, demoralisation and exhaustion. The situation is clearly not sustainable.”

Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews said: “In the summer, the government effectively abandoned schools, requiring them to be safe but without providing the support or the resources to make this possible. As a result, far too many of our children are left in crowded, badly ventilated classrooms; infections have increased 50-fold since September; one in five students are off school; and all this is now putting the whole community at risk.”

He added: “The Government must acknowledge its error and change direction. We must act urgently to make schools safe. This crucial report provides a blueprint for exactly how that can be achieved.”

The guidance document has been written following consultations with headteachers, teachers, local authority officials, representatives of academy trusts, and parents.

Commenting on Safe Schools, a new consultation guidance document from Independent SAGE with recommendations for getting down infections in schools, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“This is a welcome intervention by Independent SAGE, which once again exposes the enormous blind-spot that Government has towards schools. Today’s consultation document raises many issues which must now be seriously considered. It is quite clear that schools and colleges need much stronger safety measures.

“There are ways in which schools can be made safer. We gave the Government a roadmap in June, including advice on expanding school sites to get class sizes down, encouraging teachers back from retirement, and a proper, effective test track and trace system. They have delivered on none of this, and have instead given schools late guidance, a helpline that provides inconsistent messages, and the staggering suggestion just this week that NEU members should “hold their nerve” as staff and pupil attendance deteriorates and schools struggle to remain operational. Schools have been abandoned by this Government.

“Bubbles in secondary schools must now be reduced in size – they were always too large and have inevitably led to significant disruption when new Covid cases emerge. A system of rotas may not be ideal, but it is inescapable that more needs to be done to ensure education is sustainable as we emerge from lockdown – particularly in areas of high risk.

“There is no sign of a rethink, but there really has to be. Schools and colleges are now a major centre of transmission of Covid and ministers cannot continue to duck the issue. The Government is blindly pressing on doing very little if anything to keep schools as safe as they need to be.  Its lack of positive action is causing confusion, secrecy, mistrust, fear, demoralisation and exhaustion.”

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