Omicron’s dramatic spread across the country in recent days has posed significant policymaking challenges for the government. Transmission of Covid in school-age children, including asymptomatic transmission, is a major source of spread, so it is essential we protect the education of our children as well as their health and that of their close contacts when schools reopen in the New Year.
Basic measures have been put in place by the government across England to ensure that "we have the best chance for the start of a normal school term". These measures include increased vaccination uptake, testing of pupils on their return from the holidays, improved classroom ventilation and enhanced hygiene.
We believe the government must take further urgent action to protect the upcoming school term. It must authorise vaccines for all 5- to 11-year-olds and accelerate the existing vaccine programme for teenagers, given that only 50 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds and 70 per cent of 16 and 17 year olds have so far had one dose of the vaccine. Schools should also go back in 2022 with the highest possible number of staff vaccinated, so we recommend mandating vaccines for all school staff as has occurred with the NHS. Alongside this should sit the right testing infrastructure and widespread use of masks that give better protection from transmission. In addition, the government should outline clear contingency plans for schools so they can adapt to any future uncertainty, for example a switch to online learning if rates of transmission reach critical levels or a critical mass of students and staff are isolating.
We set out below clear recommendations on how this can be done.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has authorised vaccination of vulnerable 5- to 11-year-olds only. This does not go far enough.
As we called for in our recent paper Staying Ahead of the Covid Curve – and as supported by many other experts and the policies of several European countries – authorisation for the vaccination of 5- to 11-year-olds should be rapidly pushed through. This would both reduce transmission in schools and in the wider community, and ensure schools are not disrupted throughout 2022.
Before children return to school in January, the government should urgently make all 5- to 11-year-olds eligible under the vaccination programme, accelerate efforts to ensure that 12- to 15-year-olds have had their second dose, and encourage 16- and 17-year-olds to receive their booster.
This will involve utilising all existing vaccination sites over the Christmas and New Year period, providing increased holiday pay for vaccinators and extending an urgent call to all health-care professionals (active and retired) to help with the vaccination programme. This will provide a vital boost to the effort to save the school year by supercharging vaccination progress.
When children do return to school, this momentum should be carried forward and the government should empower all schools and vaccinators to deliver on their pledges to fully vaccinate children and provide boosters, by having a clear plan to run well-organised vaccination drives in every school. This will be a centrepiece of the first months of the term and will drive home the urgency at a time when vaccination of our children is of paramount importance.
Every resource at the government’s disposal to get the job done should be leveraged.
Lastly, other countries have had resounding success with vaccine mandates for teachers. To increase vaccination rates in schools, the government should consider a mandate, much like that recently agreed for NHS staff.
Teachers are being asked to be prepared to test students when they return to school as if they were an ad-hoc branch of the NHS and, two years into the pandemic, this is not good enough.
Instead, the government should encourage all students to take a lateral-flow test a day before going back to school, and then daily during the first week of term. Frequency of testing could then be scaled back in the following weeks to the current advice of testing twice a week, depending on the level of transmission in that area.
Throughout the year if testing resources become scarce, something which the government should seek to ensure at all costs does not happen, the immediate response should not be to close schools but instead recognise that the risks have changed and act accordingly. This means that guidance should be given to students and staff to change their behaviour and take action to help keep their communities, families and friends safe, such as:
Avoiding mixing in large groups to restrict spread, for example in the playground, in corridors or outside school.
Limiting contact with those at risk from severe disease.
These are pragmatic and effective steps that can be taken to reduce risk on day one and which will place responsibility on students and parents.
When schools return, the government should ensure pupils have an adequate and ongoing supply of lateral-flow tests to continue to conduct regular testing at home. When appropriate, testing should increasingly move to an at-home setting to ensure schools are able to focus as single-mindedly as possible on teaching.
In addition, the government should develop plans to mobilise communities to supply schools with support (for example from the voluntary sector), to provide on-site and on-arrival testing without burdening overstretched teaching staff with additional responsibility.
We know that masks work in a school setting and that they are frequently used in European countries as part of a whole-of-society approach to keep schools open. We are pleased that schools in the UK are being provided with masks and that everyone must wear them in indoor communal areas in secondary schools. However, this could and should go further.
Staff absences are expected to increase in the first weeks of the new term due to the spread of Omicron, and retired teachers are now being encouraged to assist with staff shortages: around 13,000 staff reported as absent with Covid, according to Department for Education figures for 8 December. Many of these teachers will be more vulnerable to severe sickness from Covid-19. If the government is calling on them to serve their communities during this time of crisis, the government must step up and provide them the tools with which to protect themselves.
Through the Department for Education, the government should provide a stockpile of face masks to all private, public and state schools before the beginning of the new term, and continually provide them for the first quarter of 2022. These should not be just any face masks. To best protect those in the classroom, N95 and FFP2 masks (95 per cent protection) and the FFP3 mask (close to 100 per cent protection) should be provided to staff. Where additional supply is available this should be provided to students.
In addition, stronger and more consistent messaging for students to wear face masks indoors, especially over the winter months, should be significantly increased. Year 7 and above should continue to wear masks indoors as long as Omicron represents a threat. The government should also prepare to introduce masks at short notice for those in years 3 to 6 in primary schools, depending on case rates.
Time for Action
Ultimately, a return to school and staying safe throughout the school year is contingent on common sense: children and teenagers receiving all recommended doses, students testing regularly and highly effective masks being available to be used in schools.
The government has been behind the decision-making curve on schools for some time, particularly on vaccinations. To ensure parents can be confident schools will remain open during the Omicron wave, and that staff and pupils can work safely, urgent action is needed.
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