Call for Lancs schools to shut during lockdown as figures show extent of self-isolation amongst pupils and staff
New figures have revealed the scale of the disruption caused in Lancashire’s classrooms as the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit the county during the first half of the autumn term.
The details – obtained by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) - emerged as the UK’s largest teaching union called for schools to shut as part of the nationwide lockdown due to begin later this week.
The National Education Union (NEU) wants to see the county’s primary and secondary schools close their doors to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers – for the full duration of the four-week restrictions.
The government has so far insisted that its priority is to keep the education sector functioning during the pandemic.
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The debate over whether schools need to close in order to bring the virus back under control has intensified since the Prime Minister announced the new national shutdown on Saturday.
According to official statistics seen by the LDRS, during the week ending 25th October – just before the start of the half-term holiday – 9,503 Lancashire pupils began self-isolating. That was an increase of more than 3,000 in the space of three weeks.
It represented a Covid-related absence rate of 5.36 percent of Lancashire County Council’s 175,000-strong school population, which excludes school-goers in Blackpool and Blackburn.
Meanwhile, a total of 694 staff across the county council area were self-isolating over the same period – a figure which had almost doubled since the start of October. The highest number of staff in self-isolation was in Preston – 98 – while Fylde had the fewest at 31.
Confirmed infections county-wide were much lower for both groups – at 314 (0.18 percent) for pupils and 216 for staff. That reflects the rule that self-isolation is required for people who have come into close contact with confirmed cases - but they do not have to be shown to have been infected themselves.
The total number of Lancashire pupils then due to return from a period of self-isolation over the fortnight between 24th October and 6th November stood at 14,282 – just over eight percent of the total roll in the county.
The statistics also show that a dozen Lancashire schools were forced to close completely because of a coronavirus outbreak as of 25th October – and the LDRS understands that at least one other has since been added to the list.
It had been hoped that complete school closures could be avoided by keeping pupils in tightly-defined “bubbles” in order to restrict the numbers required to self-isolate as a result of a Covid case.
Commenting on the NEU’s call for schools to be included in the forthcoming lockdown, Lancashire branch health and safety officer Ian Watkinson said that a fixed period of closure would be less disruptive than the current situation, which had seen significant numbers having to self-isolate - some on multiple occasions.
“If it just gets thrown at you that there has been an outbreak and you have to isolate with hardly any notice, that is going to be much more difficult for families.
“It has got to be better if you know there is going to be a set period of lockdown – which will hopefully have an impact [on the transmission of the virus].
“None of us want schools shut, but we can’t have safe communities without safe schools – and they’re not safe,” said Mr Watkinson, who also chairs the NEU's national health and safety group.
He added that secondary schools should adopt a “rota system” to reduce the number of pupils in class once the lockdown is over.
“There different ways of doing blended learning – from live-streamed lessons to work online.
“But it’s working in sixth form colleges now and I know that there are secondary schools ready to go with it - the idea is that nobody misses out on their learning.
Lancashire County Council was approached for comment on the NEU’s call and the self-isolation figures obtained by the LDRS.
Speaking on the subject of schools to BBC Radio Lancashire on Monday morning, the authority’s director of public health, Dr. Sakthi Karunanithi, said that there had not been a ”significant shift” in how the virus is spreading in the classroom.
“Because there is widespread community transmission, there will be bubbles that are asked to isolate.
But it is important - and there is consensus amongst every one of us - that we need to look after our children’s health not only right now, but also for the future and their wider wellbeing.
“We are working with schools to keep them safe – it’s not that they are going to be open at any cost.
“But they are safe - we aren’t seeing a lot of outbreaks starting in education settings,” Dr. Karunanithi said.
However, the leader of the Labour opposition group on the county council said that schools should shut for two of the four weeks of the lockdown period.
“We need to get on top of this quickly – I would have preferred a circuit breaker lockdown much sooner,” said County Cllr Azhar Ali.
“But if we act now, then hopefully we can save Christmas – but, much more importantly, save lives.”
Green Party county councillor Gina Dowding accused the government of “wasting the summer”.
“We have had all these months to be looking at measures like blended learning [a mixture of classroom and home-based learning] that could make life nearer to normal, but while still providing more protection against Covid,” she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the department for education said: “We are prioritising children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing by keeping nurseries, schools, colleges and universities open.
"The chief and deputy chief medical officers have highlighted the risks of not being in education on their development and mental health.”
As of 22nd October, 0.1 percent of pupils nationally were absent from school due to a confirmed case of coronavirus.
Teaching unions are split over whether schools should close as part of the lockdown.
In contrast to the NEU’s position, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) said that it was “right to prioritise keeping pupils in school”.
Nick Brook, the union’s deputy general secretary added: “No-one is more committed to ensuring that children do not lose out during this time than those that have dedicated their working lives to education. Neither though does anyone want to see pupils or staff put in harm’s way.
“We are calling on government to provide complete transparency on the risks to children, families and school staff of keeping all pupils in school, and to give clear guidance on what additional measures schools may have to take in order to keep everyone safe,” Mr. Brook said.
Geoff Barton – general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders – agreed that the priority should be for pupils to stay in school.
“Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning. Schools also play a vital role in providing support for children with special educational needs and safeguarding the welfare of vulnerable children.
“While scaling back the opening of schools is clearly a last resort, this rapidly deteriorating situation of growing transmission rates may mean that some restrictions will become necessary sooner rather than later, such as implementing the rota system in secondary schools suggested in the government’s own contingency planning.
“The government needs to set out the circumstances which would trigger such restrictions in order to provide clarity and confidence – for pupils, parents and staff – that it has a robust and responsive plan in place,” Mr. Barton said.
No. of pupils who began self-isolating during the week ending 25th October (with confirmed Covid infections in brackets):
PENDLE – 1,064 (18)
ROSSENDALE – 988 (53)
WEST LANCASHIRE – 919 (16)
LANCASTER - 898 (22)
BURNLEY – 819 (23)
WYRE – 759 (26)
PRESTON – 734 (38)
CHORLEY – 661 (15)
FYLDE – 640 (16)
SOUTH RIBBLE – 997 (41)
RIBBLE VALLEY – 514 (29)
HYNDBURN – 510 (12)
BLACKPOOL - 291*
* Figures as of 16th October