I wrote a blog a week ago about my concerns as a parent of preparing their child to return to school. In that blog I said that I also had another worry that has been brought into light by the return to school and COVID pandemic, but if I think about it I suspect that it goes deeper than just recent events.
I have realised that I am struggling to be able to assess risks of children in general returning to school accurately because I do not have the information that I need, from either central or local government or even the school. However, I suspect that school are in the dark almost as much as I am. Now I am not being stupid or awkward I just do not think that I have confidence in what I am being told.
From the start I need to say that maybe it’s a little academic. From my point of view the only young person returning to school this autumn is starting at a small secondary special school. A school that is so small that if the whole school were one bubble, it would still be smaller than most primary school bubbles. So, the anxiety I have is not due to the risks of COVID, but rather the fact that there are two school days before he is due to return and we still haven’t got confirmed joining instructions or confirmation of his taxi arrangements. These are concerning but are not down to measuring risks.
Clearly the risk to him in going back to school and our family is a lot less than the risk posed to and from most students. It is just really that I am struggling to get a handle on what that risk might be.
We all live our lives by making judgements about risks. We do it tens or maybe a hundred times a day. We assess the likelihood of something happening, good or bad, and decide whether we will take the risk. Sometimes this is a conscious decision at other times we have internalised the process and respond almost without thinking.
For example we might run across a quiet country lane almost without thinking, but we might not do the same thing for a motorway. Although in writing that I seem to recall that when I was a teenager camping in the Netherlands this may well have happened to get to the services. The motorway separated the camping field and service area. It’s kind of hazy as it was a long time ago, but either it doesn’t count in a foreign country or more likely, we assess risk differently at different ages.
So back to returning to school .....
What do we know. Maybe with children they are less likely to catch Covid-19 and the impact if they do catch it is not as great as adults. So that is good for schools, isn’t it? However, we do not seem to know when a young person becomes more susceptible to catching or is worse affected by the virus. I suspect that it is different for each person. So can we really assess the risk?
We also have to remember that in most countries around the world the risk posed to children and young people has been significantly reduced because either they haven’t been mixing in schools for months or the numbers in each classroom have been significantly reduced. Therefore, there may well be a false impression given of the risk posed that might change as kids go back to school.
When Covid was first identified the risk was to the older generations, but as we relax more it seems that people just past their teens are now a group most affected. A generation that also seems to be more asymptomatic than other age groups, or not. How do we know? No symptoms no test? Worryingly we do know that in a sandwich factory in Northampton, that did not rely on the government scheme but paid for private testing, 300 employees were affected and 90% were asymptomatic...... Do we even know how much Covid is in our communities?
In schools bubbles will help. Whether it is the primary class that will arrive together, stay together, eat in the classroom and leave together with plenty of opportunities to wash hands during the day or the whole year group in a secondary school. Keeping easily identified groups together to ‘track and trace’ will make things easier, safer in theory.
But practically it is going to be much, much harder to stop cross contamination of bubbles in the community. Our young people have brothers and sisters often in the same school in different years. They have friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and relatives who may be in different years. Community groups and organisations that our young people attend are operating, socially distanced across the country and as I write I am sitting with a mask on in an indoor skatepark where young people of different ages from different schools are inter mixing, officially in a socially distanced way.
The bubbles schools are creating are therefore compromised. Will it be that parents, carers and children will be blamed because they have not been able to comply with the obscure rules relating to socialising in a Covid world? Let us remember teachers have already been blamed for spreading the virus in their schools because ‘they didn’t follow the rules when they were out of school’. The rules change and morph over days and are so markedly different in different situations that our local authority keeps emailing residents to remind them that ‘it can be hard to keep up to date with the rules’.
We live in a rural area where a large proportion of pupils and students are bused from their home villages to local schools in ‘official’ school transport. So, assessing risk is made even harder... at bus stops kids should make sure that they stand 1m away from anyone else .... probably not. They must wear masks on the bus and the driver can refuse to transport them if they don’t, but the driver must not police this as his job is driving ..... it is perfectly okay for the bus to be full to capacity, some 80 pupils sitting. But if the same bus were hired privately it would need social distancing and have a capacity of approximately 25.
The local Director of Education was on the TV last night saying home to school transport was safe but in the next breath that there were not enough resources to provide school transport any other safer way. Two slightly different statements that don’t quite fit together as comfortably as I would have liked if I’m honest.
We’ve reduced the risk of transmitting the virus by seating all pupils and students so that they face the front of the classroom. Or we have pointed all the class straight at the person who is allegedly the most susceptible person in the room. The teacher who stays at the front, at 2 m or more from the students and ‘teaches’. So, what about the essential one to one adult teaching assistant who needs to be beside their young person? What about the personal learning relationships that teaching is all about? They are difficult to create by standing at the front of a room talking and working a whiteboard.
If the teacher gets Covid then the class isolates? I am not even sure that this is clear anymore because the talk is now of if one pupil is affected then .... of close proximity for 15 minutes ..... of if proximity is face to face .... if they are wearing masks (in England an individual school decision, at least when I looked yesterday) .... then confusion about if more than one student in a bubble is affected.
The risk is also bigger than a class or a year group. It is 30 families if it’s a class maybe over 100 people in the community for 14 days and if it’s a year group .... well you get the idea.
So how do you assess risk in sending children and young people back to school, I guess that the answer is you do not .... or more accurately you cannot. It is just the best guess. I know that I am sitting in an indoor skatepark. I know that it is in a town that last week had proportionally the highest level of new covid-19 infections in England. I know that in that period the age group most affected was between 25 and 35 (apparently because they go dancing according to the Local Director of Public Health on TV last night). I know that the charity running the park fogs between sessions to fight the virus, but I have just realised that I have no idea what the fog is through. I know that I am wearing a mask and that outside of the ramps the skaters and scooter riders are meant to wear theirs. I know that I have alcohol based sanitiser which I use, but I just don’t know what the risk of Covid is as I sit here this afternoon.
The information to ground any decision about going back to school doesn’t exist or if it does it’s confused and conflicted. We probably must cross everything and hope for the best. Children and young people need to go back not exclusively because they are missing their education, that there are gaps in learning. These could be rectified over the rest of their lives at a manageable pace rather than over the course of a term or academic year. Not that remote web based learning isn’t a replacement to the social interaction that happens in a dynamic learning environment but rather because if children and young people don’t go back then the economy can’t start and society as we knew it will not happen like it used too. But that too seems to be a best guess.
So the bigger picture becomes whether I ever really have the information that I need to assess the risks that surround me, especially when a lot of it lies outside my control. Maybe I just have to hope for the best and run across the motorway occasionally.