Back in June, with Northern Ireland’s infection rates the lowest of any UK region, we agreed with the Minister, Peter Weir for an early re-opening of schools. Crucially, we agreed for a partial return with pupils returning to school on a 2-3 days a week basis and social distancing maintained.

At the time, the politicians in the NI Executive were in a quandary. At NEU, we understood that the Executive are balancing risks – considering the health risks to the population against those of lost jobs, devastated lives in a gravely weakened economy. We understood.

NEU felt it was premature to launch into a full, 100% school restart.  It is true that children tend to have less severe illness, with fewer, often no, symptoms – but were they effective incubators, or spreaders – particular in post-primaries?  We felt that the Executive were entitled to make policy, and were unanimous, it seemed.  So, NEU were sceptical of “full return” but advised members to do their best to “work it”. Since August we have seen mixed standards, in safety, risk-assessments and in classroom and school environments. Teachers have worked hard to make the arrangements function, but there is no point in denying that severe anxieties exist in some school and college establishments. The same concerns arise throughout the UK, and in the Republic of Ireland. Our sister union, ASTI, is to ballot members on industrial action arising, in part, from unsafe environments and working practices in the covid period.

Schools did their best to risk assess, mitigate danger, and reorganise practices to reduce unnecessary contact. Distancing in secondary schools is, in practical terms, very difficult or impossible. The scientific evidence was at best mixed and did not appear to wholly support a full return, not least with social distancing effectively abandoned. Were we wise?

Fast forward to half term. Northern Ireland’s infection rate was the highest of any UK region. “Spike” areas such as Derry/Strabane led the league tables with the highest infection rate of any district council in the UK. Cases diagnosed led to significant numbers of identified close contacts required to take self-isolation breaks. The protective “bubbles” aimed to act as a firebreak on numbers isolating broke down. The Danish maximum “bubble” of 6 was rejected from the start with whole classes of 25-30 or year groups of up to 200 identified as “bubbles” – undermining the whole concept.

What’s the evidence?

Professor Paul Hunter of East Anglia University - a credible source – has indicated that “…it has become clear that there is a link between closing schools and controlling the spread of the virus.” He is supported by a recent US study by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Professor Jonathan Ball, Professor for Molecular Virology at Nottingham University, warned about the risks of reopening schools, saying “We don’t yet understand whether children play a major role in transmission, either to each other, or to the wider community, though we do know that they can be very good incubators or spreaders….”

A large-scale study of over half a million people in the Indian states of Andhra and Tamil Nadu undertaken by Princeton University in California identified close to 85,000 live covid cases. Although children had lower death rates, the study showed children who transmit illness do so in high numbers, even when asymptomatic, with an 18% transmission rate for children aged 5-17.

The evidence of the European Centre for the Control of Disease (which the Chief Medical and Scientific Officers in the UK, Ireland and across Europe tend to rely upon) is more benign. The received wisdom is that children transmit at lower rates. This is now contradicted by the two largest research cohorts to date, in South Korea and India, both of which found that children transmit the disease at the same or higher rates than adults!

Biased stats?

A further problem arises in the way statistics are compiled, notably in how the ‘causes’ of covid are isolated and ascribed. Dr William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health asserts strongly that there is a bias against ascribing and recording children as the source of transmission. Assumptions are made that “household transmission” is from adult to children rather than the reverse. So, can we trust that children are ineffective transmitters?  No, we can’t!

Dr Gabriel Scally, President of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine an a renowned expert in public health in Northern Ireland has sharply criticised the availability of publicly available statistics on Covid-19 as “transparent as a brick wall.

Before half-term, the Northern Ireland Chief Medical and Scientific officers were recommended a longer “circuit-breaking” closure of schools of 4-6 weeks, with 6 weeks preferable. For politicians of all shades, however, it had become ‘totemic’ to keep schools fully open, even with evidence of their effect on the infection rate. The Executive agreed an additional week at half-term. It is far from clear whether this will impact the infection rate enough.

Inter-communal infection differentials? Or Schools matter?

A further issue is that the infection rate district map shows clear infection differentials as between the two communities – always dangerous in Northern Ireland. The chart below, of 5th October, sets out the District level infection rates.

Local Authority District

District Watchlist status

District rate per 100,000

Antrim And Newtownabbey

Local lockdown

46

Ards And North Down

Local lockdown

38

Armagh City Banbridge And Craigavon

Local lockdown

53

Belfast

Local lockdown

120

Causeway Coast And Glens

Local lockdown

49

Derry City And Strabane

Local lockdown

259

Fermanagh And Omagh

Local lockdown

61

Lisburn And Castlereagh

Local lockdown

51

Mid And East Antrim

Local lockdown

24

Mid Ulster

Local lockdown

109

Newry Mourne And Down

Local lockdown

96

NEU has no interest in introducing ‘inter-communal’ issues into the covid debate. Infection rates can be influenced by myriad factors – differentials in social deprivation, housing availability and quality, prevalent industry type amongst others. High infect rates in Mid-Ulster, for instance, may be influenced by a preponderance of food production with high levels of migrant labour, often living in cramped circumstances. However, when one understands that the school ‘census’ of 2018 breaks down the school population as 51% Catholic, 33% Protestant and 16% ‘Other’, one begins to better understand the infection spikes in Derry, Strabane, Belfast, Mid-Ulster, Newry, Mourne and Fermanagh. There are other factors – social deprivation, housing standards, family size, employment, the nature of industry (with infection rife in industrial food production) but at minimum, we cannot discount the “school effect”. Schools matter!

NEU’s conclude that it is complacent to under-estimate or underplay the degree to which children can spread the virus.  Transmission rates ascribed to children are likely to be understated. Schools, in short, are less safe than we thought.

As a consequence, ‘School Restart’ needs to take a more precautionary approach. Primary schools could probably sustain close to full attendance. At Secondaries, a sustainable approach would see a rotational, part-time, school attendance supplemented with webinars, set and downloaded learning, remote support, e-learning, and (with the right safeguards) more live tuition in small groups, with face-to-face teaching focussing more on discussion of pre-set reading and exercises. Class sizes need to reduce. Protective bubbles should act as small ‘firebreaks’ of 6-8 in size. A sustainable School-Restart depends on a less complacent, precautionary approach, avoiding the mantra that children are relatively safe and unlikely to transmit the virus. Follow the evidence!

We would be more comfortable sticking with the ‘Plan A’ of partial return in secondaries. In the coming weeks we will be promoting measures to ensure that the “New Normal” of “living with covid” contains more sustainable accountability and easements around examinations. We will propose a debate on whether to retain GCSE examinations at all, given GCSE’s introduction as a terminal, end of schooling, metric. Pupils no longer leave education at 16, so why GCSE’s? We will promote the introduction of a Transition Year for pupils between Year 12 and Year 13.

Watch this space!