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Comment: It is too soon for children to return to the classroom

01 June 2020

The disaster in care homes should make us think twice about reopening schools just yet, says Janet Henderson


Reception pupils at Queen’s Hill Primary School, Costessey, in Norfolk, paint during a class, on Monday

Reception pupils at Queen’s Hill Primary School, Costessey, in Norfolk, paint during a class, on Monday

BACK in March, incredulous care workers were listening to their distressed managers coming out of meetings in which plans “safely” to discharge elderly people from hospital into care homes had been outlined. If regulations and guidelines were followed, there would be minimal danger of transmitting Covid-19 — and, of course, there was all this stuff called PPE, which everyone expected to see delivered any day.

All our experience of working with the elderly, plus our gut instinct, told us that something was amiss. What was being suggested was risky, dangerous, and, to say the very least, taking a capricious liberty with the lives and manner of death of vulnerable people. I am not writing this with the benefit of hindsight: at the time that many of us made protests, I wrote to my MP and the Care Quality Commission.

Had we known then that patients who might be or were infected with Covid-19 would be sent routinely to care homes, where there was no particular expertise in nursing highly contagious diseases, no PPE, and no facilities for isolation, we would have shouted much louder. Had we known that GPs would not be allowed to visit, and that no provision would be made for proper palliative care in some cases, we would have swung from the trees and yelled.

We accepted the situation with huge trepidation, because we knew that these lovely, trusting, vulnerable, elderly people needed to be cared for. We drew up the very best plans we could in the circumstances. Many homes went to extreme lengths: staff voluntarily isolated themselves from family for long periods, living in caravans and tents and making their own PPE.

It was a disaster. We had known that it would be. Although many elderly people have been successfully shielded, on 15 May the BBC reported that, during April, there had been more than 18,000 excess deaths in care homes in England and Wales. Members of the social care workforce are twice as likely as the general population (including NHS workers) to have died.

NOW, the Government seems to be making a similar miscalculation about schools. With the reproduction rate (R) scarcely below 1 for a few days, this reckless government has issued guidelines for social distancing in schools, keeping children in “bubbles” that are intended to prevent transmission between too many households.

These guidelines are being challenged by teachers, who say that they are simply not workable. Unlike carers, the teachers have powerful representative organisations to speak up for them. The British Medical Association has lent its support to voices that are saying not “We don’t want to go back to school”, but “We don’t think it’s safe to send reception class pupils back to school, in this way, now.” Experience, gut instinct, and scientific data are all crying out: “This is very risky.”

I am no expert in children’s health, but I do know that there are a whole range of studies which suggest that we do not accurately know the extent to which Covid-19 affects children. Nor do we know the extent to which children transmit the disease. There have been studies in China and elsewhere, but the research is at an early stage, and they mostly show what we do not yet know rather than draw definitive conclusions. A syndrome has been identified whereby children who have had the disease later develop an inflammatory condition that has landed some in intensive-care units.

We all know the extent to which children bring infections home from school, especially the youngest. A friend’s family was affected when her sons contracted the virus at school in March. They were, thankfully, not very ill, but mum and dad (a doctor and an agricultural scientist) caught it, and were off work for weeks.

I have just watched a Conservative MP’s YouTube video describing the approach to distancing that puts children into groups or “bubbles” of 15 with a teacher. Should someone contract the disease, only the “bubble” and their families would need to isolate. If each child has even four people in their family, this would result in more than 60 people isolating for between seven and 14 days, or perhaps much longer. Many of them might be vulnerable, or key workers.

Children have to get back to school, but every instinct and a great deal of evidence is shrieking “1 June is too soon.” Why experiment with the safety of our youngest children? (In many countries with excellent educational results, they would not be in school until they were aged seven.) Why not wait until R has been consistently below 1 for weeks rather than days?

Teachers are not raising objections because they are cowardly, lazy, or obstructive. They are raising professional concerns because they know instinctively that we are taking a huge risk with the well-being of children and families.

They are extremely worried, just as the carers were back in March, that the regulations and guidelines which they are being given are inadequate to contain the infection — and, worse, that all the factors relevant to the situation have not been properly considered. They do not want to see unnecessary deaths or the permanent disabling of children or parents who contract the disease. They remember the false assurances given in early March that it was “very unlikely the virus would be transmitted to care homes”, even as care homes were beginning to report that it was being transmitted.

TEACHERS and carers have one thing in common: they look after the most vulnerable and the most precious members of society: our children, our parents, those who are abused, those who have dementia, and those who have disabilities and are disadvantaged.

Most disgracefully, this week, parts of the press have turned on teachers. The same parts of the press regularly attack carers, who are among the lowest-paid and least-trained workers in society, for alleged dereliction of duty over conditions in care homes.

The truth underlying such attitudes is that, as a society, we have become so focused on economic growth and workplace productivity that we have no interest in resourcing and supporting those who do the kinds of work that shore up the quality of our children’s and parents’ lives. We pay lip-service to the importance of education and the crucial work of teachers. We clap and call care workers “heroes” as we send them to look after the dying with no protective equipment.

We do not listen to them, we do not take their advice, and we do not resource them properly. We allow them to be invisible and disparaged, and then we blame them for not overcoming the difficulties that our demands place upon them.

In failing them, we let down the very people whom we say we love and value most. A civilised society, at the very least, funds care for its infants and its dying, and we have failed the test for the latter. Do not let us fail it for the former.

The Revd Janet Henderson is a former Spiritual and Pastoral Care Manager at St Michael’s Hospice, Harrogate. She writes on social justice, community development, and theology at socialhorizons.blogspot.com.

This is an edited version of a blog that can be read here

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