Thousands of Lancashire children are self-isolating, as one Chorley school shuts for second time in a fortnight
The government needs to invest in more stringent measures to stem the spread of Covid in the classroom if pupils are going to be able to return to anything like normal school life at the start of the next academic year in September.
That was the message from a teacher and union representative at a secondary school in Chorley which has been forced to shift to remote learning for the next ten days - barely a week after reopening following a previous closure.
Andy Cunningham, a literacy and numeracy teacher at Parklands High School, was speaking after the Southport Road school shut its doors when self-isolations saw it left with just a quarter of its near-900 year 7-10 pupils still in class. The rest have been forced to stay at home after contact with Covid cases - of which there have been 55 in the school over the last ten days. Twenty-three teachers and three teaching assistants are also in self-isolation.
It comes as the Lancashire Post can reveal data showing that 9,254 pupils were advised to self-isolate in the Lancashire County Council area during the week ending 27th June - that equates to 5.2 percent of the 176,000 children on Lancashire’s school roll, excluding Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen.
Out of those children being kept away from class, there were 530 confirmed infections - 5.7 percent of the overall self-isolations.
Preston had the second-highest number of pupil self-isolations in Lancashire during that week - 1,206 - with South Ribble recording 909 and Chorley 711. The three Central Lancashire districts also had the more individual schools affected by self-isolations over that timeframe than anywhere else in the county council area - 26 in Preston, 22 in South Ribble and 20 in Chorley.
Across the county, 683 teachers were also forced to self-isolate.
The government has indicated that it could scrap the so-called “bubbles” system - which sees swathes of youngsters being sent home after a Covid infection is identified in their midst - as soon as 19th July or by the start of the autumn term.
But Mr. Cunningham is warning that even current mitigation measures are proving incapable of halting the spread of the Delta variant of Covid amongst pupils.
“The government needs to put some money into allowing us to buy air filters for each classroom and FFP3 [respirator] face masks - then we’ll be able to stay in school and not expose children to the virus.
“There also needs to be a much better system for everybody to take PCR tests once or twice each week, rather than [using] the lateral flow devices, which are wildly inaccurate and a lot of people don’t do properly. If we use [lateral flow tests] instead of self-isolation, we’d just see cases sky-rocketing." Mr. Cunningham said.
An analysis of 64 studies into the accuracy of lateral flow tests published by the Cochrane Library in March found that they correctly identified Covid‐19 infection in an average of 72 percent of people with symptoms and 58 percent of those who were symptom-free. In people who did not have Covid, lateral flow tests correctly ruled out infection in 99.5 percent of people with symptoms and 98.9 percent of those without.
Mr. Cunningham says that children themselves - while regarded as generally being at far less risk than other sections of the population from the effects of Covid - are, in his experience, becoming more unwell after contracting the virus now than they were earlier in the pandemic.
"I know some people are willing to accept [higher cases], because there are [now] fewer people dying - but we do have some serious concerns about long Covid in children.
“In this wave, it’s the first time we have seen kids getting ill with Covid. Normally they just get it asymptomatically, but we are seeing children becoming bed-ridden [for a time] - and there was a study in Australia reported in the British Medical Journal which said that 50 percent of secondary children will still have a Covid symptom four months [after infection].
“So if we’re looking at half of our kids being tired, lethargic, losing concentration or not being able to breathe properly in four months, we’re just storing up a massive problem for the future,” said Mr. Cunningham, who is a workplace representative for the National Education Union.
He added that there were now more confirmed cases at Parklands than at any point during the pandemic - in spite of the efforts of staff to keep Covid under control. The school has racked up an isolation rate of three in four pupils even though it does not usually send an entire year group bubble home after the emergence of a single case - but rather just those pupils who have spent time in close proximity to the infected student.
"We have detailed seating plans of every class and if there is a case, we only ask those that are within two metres of the child to isolate. So depending on the child and the day, it could be 14 or 15 children [who have to self-isolate], but if they have had a few options subjects or PE, it can go up to 70 [self-isolations per case].
"In general, we don't close the bubble for one case, but if we get two or three - or we get into a situation like we did last week with our years 8s where there was only a few of them left in - then we might close the bubble, because it both helps to stop the spread but also provides better education for [the children]."
Parklands Headteacher Steve Mitchell says he appreciates the difficulties that self-isolation causes for families - because he has experienced them himself, with his own two secondary school-aged sons currently having to stay away from their school.
He said that it was a difficult decision to close Parklands once again - but one that was taken because of the “sheer scale of positive test results”.
"My colleagues on the governing body and in the school are all too aware of the issues the pandemic has brought to many of our families. None of us, however, are trained in how to handle such a situation, so we have constantly followed the official schools' guidance published by the Department for Education whilst liaising with the public health team in Lancashire.
“Our students deserve the best quality first teaching and I am proud of the hard work of our teachers and support staff - but the constant in-and-out-of-school that the majority of our students have been contending with recently has made teaching incredibly difficult.
“The 55 cases we have had over the course of the past 10 days have led to huge numbers of students being identified as close contacts, who have then had to self-isolate for 10 days. This is the guidance for all schools and it would be irresponsible of us to deviate from it until there is a change nationally.
“Thankfully, as the vaccination programme progresses, we can see light at the end of the tunnel - and the recent press coverage which has highlighted the issue of isolating school children reinforces the message I and many of our families have communicated to the Chorley MP, Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
“As headteacher, my priority is to our students and they are at the forefront of every decision I make. I am grateful for the support of the Parklands community, who, I hope, can understand our action despite the inconvenience it may cause,” Mr, Mitchell said.
Andy Cunningham added that the routine of a period of home learning would at least bring pupils some much-needed certainty.
“For the children, the disruption affects their education and mental health massively, but for the next seven school days, they know what they are doing every day - getting up and going onto Google Classroom and teachers are delivering live lessons.
“But they are fed up. I have children who have done ten days of isolation, they have come in for a day - and then there has been a case [of which] they are a contact and they have gone straight back into isolation.
“They can access school work, but they cannot do all of their other stuff. So there’s no playing for their football team at the weekend or going to a dance competition. That kind of thing is devastating when you’re 12 or 13,” Mr. Cunningham added.
Responding to the issues raised in this report, education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The vast majority of children and young people are in school, but I am aware that sadly a minority are experiencing disruption at the moment.
“Whilst pupils who are self-isolating are being immediately provided with high-quality remote education, we know that the best place for children is in the classroom. That is why I am working with the health secretary, alongside scientists and public health experts, to relax Covid measures in schools in line with wider work to remove restrictions across society.
“I’ll be looking closely at the issues around the need for ongoing isolation of bubbles and the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in education,” Mr. Williamson said.
A study of daily testing in secondary schools and colleges as an alternative to self-isolation for students who have come into contact with a Covid case is now coming to its conclusion
The Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that schools have been asked to prepare for the possibility of on-site testing when students return for the new academic year.
Unlike in many parts of England, public health bosses in Lancashire are continuing to recommend the use of masks in classrooms and communal areas.
Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, director of public health for Lancashire County Council, said that the region's schools were "continuing to feel the impact of this latest wave of infections, despite the immense efforts of staff to keep pupils safe".
He added: "Schools have had a tremendously tough time and they have our full support in the actions being taken in response to this latest wave of infections that has spread throughout the country.
"Our schools have been phenomenal throughout the pandemic and we will continue to work with them to ensure they remain safe for pupils, staff and the wider community.
"Parents and carers are understandably tired and frustrated by the current situation, but I urge you to have patience and be kind to staff who have given so much over the past 18 months.
"If you do test positive for Covid-19 or are identified as a close contact of a positive case, it is really important that you self-isolate as advised to prevent spreading the virus to others.
"Support is available if you need it - so visit the [county council's website] to see what you can access."
"IT'S NOT GOOD FOR THEM"
A mother from Chorley says that schools are not being allowed to use their “common sense” over how to deal with Covid in the classroom.
Donna Simpson, who has teenage daughters in years 8 and 9, says that repeated self-isolations risk damaging the mental health of children whose lives have been turned upside down by Covid - whether they have contracted the virus or not.
“It’s so hard for them. My youngest daughter started in year 7 just before the pandemic, so it feels like she's not had any high school experience - and, of course, she’s not able to socialise.
“Children end up spending a lot of time in front of the computer and it’s not good for them.
“My partner and I run our own businesses, so this has been difficult for us, too. I'm just lucky that my children are older - if they were still young, I’d have had no income.
“When you look at the figures for hospitalisations [from Covid], maybe it’s time now that we just try and get on with it,” Donna added.
However, Caroline Parr - mum to a ten-year-old girl who attends Eccleston Primary School in Chorley - says her daughter's teachers have made the home learning experience as painless as possible.
“We got an alert last Sunday afternoon saying that there had been a case and my daughter would have to self-isolate.
“I expected it to take a day or so before things got started properly - but there was work set straight away from Monday morning.
“The school has also been great at putting the children in Zoom lessons for English and Maths - and even one focused on their mental health where they can link up to do things like scavenger hunts. They are also having a Zoom assembly at the end of the week.
"I have a busy job, but I know I'm lucky also to have an understanding employer. It also helps that my daughter is that bit older and more independent - she comes in to ask for guidance when she needs it, but if she was only, say, six, it might be more difficult.
"However, we're in a pandemic, so I think we've all got to show a bit of flexibility," Caroline said.
IN NUMBERS - LANCASHIRE'S CLASSROOM COVID STATS
Pupils told to self-isolate (21st-27th June), followed by that figure expressed as a proportion on the school roll in the district:
BURNLEY - 1,314 (8.98 percent)
CHORLEY - 711 (4.34 percent)
FYLDE - 267 (3.17 percent)
HYNDBURN - 890 (6.82 percent)
LANCASTER - 678 (3.50 percent)
PENDLE - 349 (2.35 percent)
PRESTON - 1,206 (5.96 percent)
RIBBLE VALLEY - 421 (3.91 percent)
ROSSENDALE - 839 (6.89 percent)
SOUTH RIBBLE - 909 (5.40 percent)
WEST LANCASHIRE - 579 (3.70 percent)
WYRE - 1,091 (7.72 percent)
LANCASHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL TOTAL - 9,254 (5.24 percent)
Confirmed pupil infections (21st-27th June), followed by that figure expressed as a proportion of pupil self-isolations in the district over that period:
BURNLEY - 75 (5.7 percent)
CHORLEY - 56 (7.8 percent)
FYLDE - 7 (2.6 percent)
HYNDBURN - 57 (6.4 percent)
LANCASTER - 28 (4.1 percent)
PENDLE - 23 (6.6 percent)
PRESTON - 56 (4.6 percent)
RIBBLE VALLEY - 41 (9.7 percent)
ROSSENDALE - 52 (6.1 percent)
SOUTH RIBBLE - 40 (4.4 percent)
WEST LANCASHIRE - 29 (5.0 percent)
WYRE - 66 (6.0 percent)
LANCASHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL TOTAL - 530 (5.7 percent)
Source: Lancashire County Council data obtained and analysed by the Local Democracy Reporting Service