The COVID-19 Series: Reopening Schools
This week, the UK Government has been advocating the opening of schools, but the Trades Union, as well as the British Medical Council have both raised objections at this stage. A few thoughts on that topic.
Looking at safety in isolation for a moment – that is to say, excluding economic factors, there seems to be an increasing body of evidence to suggest that children are as likely to catch the virus as adults, but considerably less likely to develop severe symptoms (and many cases are asymptomatic).
Against that, however, we have to remember that each child is going to go home every day to parents. Those parents are much more likely to display symptoms, and as we’ve seen, some of those will develop very severe symptoms, and sadly, some will be fatal. Realistically, even if a child does show symptoms, is it feasible for them to self-isolate from their parents? Teens? Yeah, probably. Young children? Not so much.
Moreover, now consider that many COVID-19 cases have an incubation period of up to two weeks, and during that time we aren’t sure how contagious (or otherwise) they might be. So if a child catches the virus and passes it onto their parents, then it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of those parents will pass it onto others they come into contact with – whether it be at work, shopping, etc. – before they realise they’re symptomatic.
And we’re not just talking about parents: if a child is infected, then it stands to reason that teachers will also become infected. Again, those will have families, and it doesn’t take long to see how one child in one school being infected can very quickly spiral to several hundred cases. Now multiply that across the country, and the potential spike in cases is very real.
There’s also the elephant in the room: there will be some children, and some parents, and some teachers that fall into the higher risk categories for various reasons. Let’s be honest, much like the rest of the adult population, not all teachers are shining beacons of health and fitness, and we’re seeing that healthy weight (or lack thereof) is playing a significant factor in those who require more medical treatment for COVID-19. Likewise, there are plenty of teachers in their later years (50s and 60s), which have a disproportionately high mortality rate vs. younger adults.
Looking at the political aspects, it’s worth noting that many countries have decided that ‘not before September’ is the safe time to go back, and those countries (Italy, Spain, etc.) are further along their ‘outbreak trajectory curve’ than we are. Yet again, UKgov seems determined to buck the international trend, because that worked so well first time around, as we sit here with the highest mortality in Europe. The Chancellor has already confirmed extension of the furlough scheme until October, so having kids at home for that little bit longer (especially given at least 6 weeks of that will be the traditional summer holiday anyway) shouldn’t adversely affect parents’ finances too badly.
Then there’s the other elephant in the room: as a country we’re nowhere near ready with the necessary test and trace infrastructure to be able to deal with an outbreak when it (inevitably) occurs. Sure, we can close the school down for a few weeks until it burns out, but we don’t have anything like the support needed to trace everyone who the children, parents and teachers have come into contact with in the (potentially) 2 weeks before symptoms developed.
tl;dr version: September seems the sensible target to aim for.
- It will give schools time to implement a proper approach to social distancing.
- It will give UKgov time to build the essential infrastructure for track and trace, recruiting and training contact tracing staff, etc.
- It will give UKgov time to increase its testing infrastructure so that anyone who is in contact with a suspected case can be tested and given a clear yes/no. At the moment, the limited available tests are being (rightly) restricted to those dealing with the most vulnerable (medical staff, care home staff, etc.)
- It will give virologists time to continue to investigate new treatments, such that when an outbreak does occur, better treatments, and a better prognosis.
June seems unnecessarily premature, and seems to be a target chosen for little more than political point scoring rather than based on actual science.