Creating covid secure schools: We need strategy, not just ad hoc responses

As ever, when it comes to the UK government’s policy on schools, all we hear is the squealing of emergency brakes, say Susan Michie, Stephen Reicher, and John Drury

One of the problems in commenting on schools policy during the pandemic is that it changes so quickly and so often that it can be hard to know exactly what the policy is from one day to the next. On Sunday 3 January, the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, declared that schools were safe. On the Monday his government closed all schools in England. On the Tuesday, they published a list of key workers whose children were exempt from the closure, which was so broadly drawn that, on the Wednesday and Thursday, one in six primary schools reported that 30% of pupils were in attendance and around one in eight said that at least half of the roll were coming to school. On Friday, the guidance was revised to stress that children of critical workers should stay at home if they can.

However belatedly we got there, this was the right decision. We strongly endorse the World Health Organization’s position that maintaining education should be a priority, that schools should be last to close, closures should be as brief as possible, and that they should be first to open. We fully recognise the considerable harms—to physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, educational performance, and hence to future prospects—caused by shutting schools. However, with confirmed covid-19 infections, hospitalisations, and deaths worse now than in the spring 2020 peak, with the new and more transmissible B117 variant, with increasing evidence of the role of schools in the transmission of infection, and with SAGE concluding at its 22 December meeting that R could not be brought below 1 without the closure of schools, the decision was inevitable in order to bring the pandemic under control and protect the NHS from collapse.

At the same time, we have deep concerns about the approach taken by the UK government. These concerns are not simply down to the process through which they arrived at the decision—even though the delay and muddle gave an opportunity for children to meet, mix, and transmit infection after the Christmas break, and also caused considerable confusion and distress. It is more that this muddled process is emblematic of a wider problem with the government’s pandemic response.

Whether in March, in November, before Christmas, or now in January, there has been a consistent pattern whereby the scientific community has warned of a looming crisis, the government has delayed its response until we are in the crisis, and then has imposed emergency measures to bring infections under control. It has always been reactive, behind the virus. What has never happened is the proactive formulation of a comprehensive strategy to bring down infections and keep them down. Unlike other countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, or New Zealand, we have never got ahead or on top of the pandemic. Hence we continue to yo-yo in and out of restrictions with the consequent damage to both our health and our economy.

In the case of schools, the government has bowed to the necessity of closures, but there is no sign of any policies to make schools as safe as possible so that they can reopen as soon as possible with a minimised risk of spreading infection. Nor is there evidence of policies to mitigate the harms of closure to children both in the short and long term. There is no sign of a medium term or a long term strategy. As ever, all we hear is the squealing of emergency brakes.

Let us start with the issue of safety. After the first lockdown, the government handed responsibility over to schools and governors to make schools safe. While strenuous efforts were made, this was all but impossible without extra resources. Independent SAGE and others have been making this point since the autumn but nothing has been done. As a result, many classrooms remain crowded and badly ventilated, and hence ideal for the transmission of infection. A number of simple steps could be taken to rectify this. For instance, in Denmark, extra teachers have been hired, extra spaces (such as museums and theatres) have been hired, and as a result classes are no bigger than 10-12 pupils and can achieve proper spatial distancing. Had the UK acted likewise, our present predicament may not have become as serious. But we can still learn the lessons and take urgent actions—including providing ventilation—to make schools safer for pupils, for staff, and hence for the community in general.

There is also much that should, could, and still can be done to mitigate the harms of closure. Most obviously, there is ample evidence that school closures in the spring led to loss of learning, particularly for less privileged children. A major part of this was the lack of laptops or tablets, wi-fi, and study space. At first the government promised to address this, then (the day after they laid a formal duty on schools to provide remote learning) they cut provision of laptops and tablets by 80%. Rather than provide the resources, they simply told those lacking them to join other vulnerable children back in the classroom, leading to all the conditions we know were associated with transmission. A solution for children lacking quiet study space at home is to provide local supervised study hubs where they could attend on their own or with a family member or other helper to assist.

It is also evident that school closures can isolate children and compromise their mental health. One report found that 87% of children said they felt lonely during the first lockdown and 69% of those back at school said their mental health was poor. Yet only 40% said their school had a counsellor, only 27% said they had been able to speak to any staff member about how they were feeling, and 23% said there was actually less mental health support than before the pandemic (only 9% said more). Given such extensive harm, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has estimated that 1.5 million children will need extra support. Much more must be done to provide such support, not only in NHS settings but also in schools and the community.

There is much more we could say about the things we should be doing, both to make schools safe and to mitigate the harms done to our schoolchildren since March. We have only had space here to raise these issues in outline so as to make a simple general point. Closing schools is a last resort, but we are now in that last resort. However, without also addressing the safety of schools and harm to children, a policy of closure is both practically limited and morally unacceptable.

Susan Michie is a professor of health psychology and director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. Twitter @SusanMichie

Stephen Reicher is a professor in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews. Twitter @ReicherStephen

John Drury is a social psychologist in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. Twitter @ProfJohnDrury

All authors participate in SPI-B (SAGE) and Independent SAGE. SR participates in the advisory group to the Scottish chief medical officer.

Declaration of interests: None declared

Role of funding source:  This piece is linked to a UKRI grant awarded to Drury and Reicher: “Facilitating the public response to COVID-19 by harnessing group processes” Ref: ES/V005383/1