The No Safety No Work Campaign has consistently argued for measures to be taken to make schools Covid-secure. Community spaces could be used as temporary classrooms, for example, so that social distancing was practical. This has not been taken up. In England, too much reliance seems to have been placed on lateral flow testing which only 60% of parents have signed up to. And, they are not completely accurate, giving both false positives and negatives. Schools will not be Covid-secure and having them open in a pandemic means that infections will rise and spread into the community. This demonstrates that, as far as the government and the bosses are concerned, the working class is expendable- what matters is making sure parents can work.
Those of you who keep an eye on Covid-19 infection rates in your area may have noticed the first rise in infections for weeks. My Zoe, Covid-19 Symptom Study App does show a rise in infections. That this coincides with the reopening of schools to all pupils is probably more than a coincidence given that two very important measures to make schools Covid secure have not been implemented: the vaccination of education workers and the ventilation of classrooms.
There is a strong case to be made for the priority vaccination of all frontline staff. Not necessarily because they are at a higher risk of death but because they live and move and have their being in the wider community where they can spread the virus around. We also rely on them for the provision of essential services and if they went off sick, those services would be at risk. This is especially the case with education workers. Much has been made of making the reopening of schools a priority and the welfare of children is given as the reason. But if a teacher catches Covid, they can’t teach and their students will fall further behind. The Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green, called for the vaccination of teachers at half-term and was supported by the Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lamy. Even Tony Blair has said that there was a “very strong case” for vaccinating teachers as a priority. None of these politicians could be described as “radical”. We should vaccinate education workers to protect children’s education. This would have the added benefit of rewarding and reassuring those re-entering crowded classrooms with poor ventilation and new variants afoot. This is something that could be done relatively easily and would be more than just a gesture of our support for key workers.
The adequate ventilation of classrooms is a priority. Schools must be safe to stay open. For an airborne virus, this means keeping the air flowing. In the US, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued detailed guidance for schools and childcare, urging the opening of windows, the use of portable air cleaners and child safe fans, and improved building-wide filtration. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) settings must maximise ventilation to bring as much outdoor air into classrooms as the system will safely allow. The aim is to improve air filtration without significantly reducing air flow. The use of portable air cleaners with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters is encouraged wherever possible. Activities, classes and lunches should be outdoors when circumstances allow. In the UK, by contrast, filtered, flowing air is not seen as a priority. The typical state-school classroom contains 31 people and has poor ventilation; and teaching periods last up to two hours before children and education workers leave for a break. No wonder the chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty is already predicting another surge.