Covid to ‘rip’ through schools unless safety measures brought in immediately, ministers warned

Covid to ‘rip’ through schools unless safety measures brought in immediately, ministers warned

Covid to ‘rip’ through schools unless safety measures brought in immediately, ministers warned

Covid could rip through classrooms when schools reopen next month unless mitigation measures are brought in immediately to protect pupils against the virus, ministers have been warned.

Experts told The Independent that Britain must follow the example of other countries in improving school safety to ensure high rates of illness and further disruption are avoided.

Germany is spending €200m on mobile air filters for schools, while some 100,000 air purifiers have been installed in classrooms across New York. Carbon dioxide monitoring equipment is also being rolled out in Scotland to help identify poorly ventilated areas in schools.

The government is set to begin trialling air purifiers and ultraviolet light in 30 schools in Bradford, though it’s reported the technologies won’t be rolled out in England until 2022.

Scientists and education leaders have called upon Downing Street to act now in improving classroom ventilation, and consider mask-wearing too, amid concerns that the highly transmissible Delta variant will rapidly spread through schools upon their reopening at the start of September.

“The key things to an effective prevention strategy are good masking and good indoor air quality,” said Orla Hegarty, an assistant professor of architecture, planning and environmental policy at University College Dublin.

“There’s a view that we should let Covid rip through children and young people to develop natural immunity. It’s immoral and reckless to roll the dice like this when we don’t fully know what the long-term damage might be in children, or what new variants will emerge from this scale of disease.”

While schools have been told to keep classrooms “well ventilated” by the government, union leaders have warned that many teachers and children are still working in rooms which have the windows sealed shut, heightening the risk of transmission.

The Covid virus spreads via tiny droplets called aerosols, exhaled by infected people. These particles can linger in a room’s air for up to three hours, studies suggest. With children and teachers set to spent more time indoors from next month, unions are fearful of a sharp rise in cases.

“Given the recent warnings we have heard from the chief medical officer that the autumn and winter could be a very difficult period again for the country, it’s important that pre-emptive action is taken in schools,” said Jane Peckham, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT.

Children are at lower risk from Covid-19 than adults, though data suggest that 1 in 200 of under-18s infected with the virus in England will be hospitalised. If cases rise upon the reopening of schools, the number of children who fall seriously ill will also increase, said Prof Hegarty.

“If it’s a small percentage of children infected when there’s a small number of cases in the community, then it’s very low,” she said. “But if there’s a very large number of cases in the community, even a small percentage of children is a lot of illness. They’re seeing that in parts of America now.”

There have been reports of teenagers becoming “seriously ill” with Covid-19 in recent weeks, said Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics who sits on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which subsequently approved the use of vaccines in 16 and 17-year-olds.

An estimated 34,000 children in the UK are meanwhile thought to be experiencing lingering Covid symptoms, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – a figure that is likely to rise if transmission in schools surge.

Despite this, “we do not appear to have made mitigations in schools that have been made in other countries,” said Dr Peter English, a former chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee.

“We seem to be encouraging school children to get infected as quickly as possible, which feels highly reckless given we don’t know about the long-term consequences. I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen when schools go back.”

Although the Department for Education (DfE) is working with Public Health England and other authorities on a pilot project to measure CO2 levels in classrooms, it hasn’t been specified when this will be implemented and on what scale. There are concerns, too, that the government’s new air purifier pilot, which is being backed with £1.8m of taxpayers’ money, is coming too late.

Professor Irene Petersen, an epidemiologist at University College London, welcomed news of the pilot but said this “should not be an excuse to delay implementation of basic air quality measures any further”, adding that there was already ample evidence supporting the use of air purifiers in schools.

Jon Richards, assistant general secretary of Unison, said the government had “boasted” about providing extra money to improve airflow in classrooms but had yet to make any funding available.

“It’s vital the DfE provides a clear plan and proper funding for ventilation to allow pupils to stay in school and keep infection rates low,” he added.

Across Germany, improvements have been made to ventilation systems in public buildings, including schools. The government has set aside millions for the installation of mobile air filters, with thousands already fitted in classrooms across the country.

New York’s education department is similarly aiming to provide all 56,000 public school classrooms in the city with two air purifiers, which help to reduce the risk of infection by removing virus particles from the room.

The department has also invested in ventilation system repairs and provided CO2 monitors for schools to measure the accumulation of carbon dioxide levels in rooms – an indicator of how much fresh air is circulating.

“It’s not we don’t have the technology or knowledge – it’s the political will to implement those strategies,” said Prof Hegarty. “Ireland, the UK and plenty of other western countries have taken an approach of how little can we get away with, rather than how much do we need to do.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “In line with existing guidance and the protective measures recommended for schools, indoor spaces should be kept well ventilated.

“Areas where ventilation is poor should be proactively identified so that steps can be taken to improve fresh air flow if needed.”

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