A classroom with desks and chairs

I have read the government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan for schools, and it isn’t going to work.

Any ideas that you can take ‘personal responsibility’ and keep yourself Covid-safe, or weigh up your own choices and risks around the virus, are simply laughable if you either work in, or have children in education.

The new regime of no testing, no masks, no contact tracing and no mandatory self-isolation if you test positive, means that schools are now flying blind: relying on not only the sense of responsibility, but in a lot of cases the clairvoyance of every member of their community.

As a parent, you no longer have any idea if the child your son or daughter sits next to all day has Covid. And to be fair, that child’s parent probably doesn’t know either. The end of free, routine testing is the end of spotting the one third of cases which are asymptomatic, and even if the child has a sniffle, do we really expect busy, skint parents to grab a £5.99 test to check?

Staff no longer know who in their class has Covid. And they can no longer order free tests to find out. If you are a clinically vulnerable member of staff, your work now puts you in an impossible position.

The “Living with Covid” plan makes it clear: vaccines form the basis of the whole strategy. Again, schools are ignored. 5-11 year olds haven’t even had the chance of a first dose yet. Uptake among 12-15s is still low. ‘

We’re being encouraged to think all this doesn’t matter: most kids experience a mild or asymptomatic illness, so what’s the problem? Firstly, not all children are so lucky. A small percentage will catch Covid and become seriously ill, or even die. A small percentage will develop long Covid. Given mass transmission, a small percentage of a very large number means misery for a lot of our kids. ONS data shows 21,000 children in the UK have now had long Covid symptoms for over a year. The effects of the huge Omicron wave haven’t even appeared in these statistics yet.

Secondly, pretending Covid is no longer a problem in schools doesn’t stop staff catching it. Covid circulating untested in schools will lead to more staff absence, more disrupted education, less of the stability our children need. And while pupils may mostly experience mild illness, staff certainly don’t. ONS data shows that teaching and social care have the highest prevalence of Long Covid of any occupations. These are high-exposure jobs, now stripped of protections. School staff have worked so hard, coped with so much, sacrificed their health and their personal lives through this pandemic. “Living with Covid” feels like throwing them to the wolves. It also feels like a recruitment and retention crisis in the making.

Lastly, uncontrolled transmission in schools affects us all. We’ve watched the graphs for long enough to know: wave after wave of Covid starts in school-age children, then passes up through the age groups, through the parents, into the community where it infects the elderly and the vulnerable. The greatest flaw in the plan for us all to take ‘individual responsibility’ is that the effects of this pandemic are not equally felt. You may feel comfortable with a certain level of risk, but the people taking the hit for that risk are those living in poverty, with health vulnerabilities, in areas with poor air quality, living in overcrowded or multi-generational homes, and as the Covid Disparities Report tells us, those of Black or South Asian origin. Removing Covid protections from schools allows the virus to be brought home into disadvantaged and vulnerable households to do terrible damage with every wave. And there will be another wave. And many more, if we keep providing the virus with every opportunity it needs to transmit, mutate, transmit.

A true ‘Living with Covid’ plan would do everything possible to minimise transmission in schools. There would be a budget for upgrading ventilation and air filtration, as we have repeatedly called for; regular free testing would continue; self-isolation for positive cases would be mandated; and masks would be allowed to return whenever there are cases in a school. A true ‘Living with Covid’ plan would focus on long-term solutions, with the aim of achieving stability and facing the inevitable next wave much better prepared.

This plan isn’t living with Covid, it’s pretending it’s gone away. Sticking their heads in the sand instead of working out a new, sustainable way forward for our schools, sacrificing the most vulnerable in our society and choosing self-delusion over science is no example for our government to set for our children.

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