With so much ‘negativity’ being pumped out by media outlets and opposition politicians concerning the Scottish Government’s cautious approach to ending lockdown for schools, it’s worthwhile keeping an eye on what’s happening now in other countries.
The TuSC has already highlighted recent examples of schools in South Korea, France and The Netherlands having to close shortly after re-opening because of new local outbreaks of coronavirus.
News from England
There are now media reports of individual cases of schools in England having to close due to a local outbreak shortly after re-opening. This is from the BBC: “Cedar Primary School in Northampton, which had partly reopened on Monday, closed on Wednesday after two support staff tested positive for the virus.”
More recently, Public Health England’s (PHE) latest ‘Weekly Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Surveillance Report, for week 24 (data between 08 June and 14 June 2020 …)’ provides additional information to cause concern.
In its summary it states: “While care home outbreaks have continued to decline, an increase in school and ‘other settings’ outbreaks have been noted over the past few weeks. Community and syndromic indicators decreased or remained similar to the previous week.”
It provides data on acute respiratory outbreaks in England. (An ‘outbreak’ is defined as two or more people experiencing a similar illness, which appears to be linked to a particular setting.)
In week 24, 199 new acute respiratory outbreaks were reported by PHE:
• 101 outbreaks were from care homes where 67 tested positive for Covid-19
• 24 outbreaks were from hospitals where 21 also tested positive
• 24 outbreaks were from schools where 12 also tested positive
• No outbreaks were from prisons this week
• 50 outbreaks were from the Other Settings category where 34 also tested positive.
The educational news bulletin, School Week on 18 June published an article under the headline ‘Suspected covid-19 outbreaks in schools rise by 70%’. It records that: “Public Health England’s weekly COVID-19 surveillance report, published today, shows the number of acute respiratory outbreaks in schools rose from 14 to 24 – putting schools on the same number of suspected outbreaks recorded in hospitals.”
And it goes on: “Between April 20 and May 24, the number of suspected outbreaks in schools did not rise above four, however it has shot up to 15, 14 and 24 in the past three weeks respectively.”
A ‘warning shot’
On 20 June, the Education Editor of Wales Online wrote an article under this headline: “Re-opening schools has sparked ‘local flares’ of coronavirus, warns World Health Organisation: The World Health Organisation said evidence is starting to emerge from across Europe of the effects of re-opening schools”
It reports the World Health Organisation Director for Europe Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge saying that re-opening schools has caused local “flares” of coronavirus cases. ‘Mr Kluge described it as a “warning shot”.’ Kluge added: “In the past month the number of European countries showing significant increases in cumulative incidence has more than tripled, from 6 to 21 countries.”
A view from Wales
Reporting on the situation in Wales, the same article notes: “The National Education Union Cymru said it’s preferred option was to return in September, although it will support the June 29 opening. NASUWT Cymru and UCAC warned they don’t think it is safe for pupils to return on June 29. Unison Cymru also wanted a September return.”
None of this should come as a surprise to the UK government. The minutes of the SAGE meeting on 21 May state:
“Para 15: SAGE advised that either social bubbling or opening both primary and secondary schools had the potential to recreate significant transmission networks, which could have a large effect on the pandemic.”
The purpose of amplifying the above reports is not to cause alarm or increase natural anxieties. Rather it is to provide some counter-balance to the prevailing oppositional messages directed – without context, without perspective – at the Scottish Government over its planning for schools.
The operational issues associated with keeping school communities safe during the epidemic whilst optimising learning and teaching is complex enough when considering just the re-opening of individual (and highly diverse) school buildings. But of course this planning, by necessity, is having to be done within a context. This includes not only local risk management but also substantial and unavoidable uncertainty concerning the status of the coronavirus epidemic across Scotland weeks and months ahead.
Moreover, the planning needs to be mindful that schools are part of the wider community. What happens in terms of the effects of easing public lockdown generally now and over the next few weeks is crucial. This in turn is contingent on the general public’s compliance with current and evolving public health guidance in Scotland. All this will have a major impact on the status of the epidemic at the time when pupils are scheduled to return to school in August. Who’s crystal ball do you favour – that of the Scottish Government or Mr Carlaw’s or Mr Leonard’s?
And just as there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to operating safely in diverse buildings, there will be particular, perhaps unique, issues to manage in different local, geographic settings. And how diverse will be the needs and the demands of different households?
(Candidly, it is ironic to hear opposition politicians criticise the Scottish Government for relying too much on local government decision making over the details for schools re-opening. It wasn’t all that long ago and on multiple issues that the Scottish Government was being assailed for its over-centralising tendencies!)
This epidemic is ‘live’ and within complex, interacting and inter-dependent ‘systems’ of transmission. Public health management has to respond in ways that take such system-level issues into account. It is reasonable during such a deadly public heath emergency to expect that a public service broadcaster would be mindful of its responsibilities to ‘educate’ its viewers and listeners on these challenging matters. But evidence of such a public service in Scotland is scarce or absent. Is a well informed electorate undesirable?