Looking back to last Christmas, much of what was happening at that time looks set to re-run over Christmas 2021, particularly with respect to schools, one of the premier vectors of covid transmission. In the run up to Christmas 2020, we were also experiencing the emergence of a new covid variant. We don’t yet know what the impact of Omicron will be, but data gathered and analysed over this month will give us a much better idea. If we opt to close schools for Christmas on 10 December, we could create a stop-gap in the infection cycle. But will the government have the foresight and maturity to employ such a strategy?
Groundhog Day Christmas
Nearly a year ago, Dr Jarvis published an article in the Yorkshire Bylines with the title ‘Suffer the Children, Christmas UK 2020’. In it, she commented:
“During the Zoom launch for the [most recent Independent SAGE] report, one speaker concluded that as schools returned in September, the government ‘abandoned’ them, abdicating the responsibility to protect children, families and education staff from infection to teachers, head teachers and parents, without providing them with effective strategies or sufficient funding to do the job.”
So, what has changed over the past year? Sadly, not very much. If anything, 2021 has worked out worse for children than 2020, given that they and their parents are now most likely to be the demographics suffering from covid, following the mass vaccination of the older population.
Schools are now in danger of experiencing a re-run of last year, living the same problems over again, placed by the Department for Education (DfE) into a situation that evokes the classic film Groundhog Day.
In December 2020, the DfE was threatening to take legal action against schools who closed early for Christmas. As December 2021 begins, schools and parents are being gaslit by the DfE, which is posting messages to social media encouraging schools to go ahead with ‘superspreader’ Christmas events such as nativity plays in school halls packed with teachers, parents, grandparents and children. This contradicts the advice of many senior government advisers, including Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency.
This, alongside the punitive OFSTED inspections that were unleashed into schools over the autumn term, ongoing staff sick leave and bumbling attempts to introduce CO2 monitors into schools that have no ability to ventilate other than opening doors and windows, has led many head teachers to consider resignation. Many report that they are at breaking point.
Covid in schools: an explosive mixture
There is now so much evidence that schools are one of the major vectors of covid transmission that there is little point in the government continuing to gaslight the population.
Some of the strategies school leaders have been forced to take to cope are now risking heightened probability of infection.
All the way through this pandemic, the British government has never seemed to grasp that it is a much better strategy to take early precautionary measures – such as masking, distancing and bubbling – to avoid a level of mass infection than it is to employ a ‘flip-flop’ policy, alternating lax restrictions with sudden panicky, lockdowns.
But now, as the pandemic moves into its third calendar year, it is past time for them to formulate more responsible, reflective responses.
Christmas 2021: a period of uncertainty
So, what would be a sensible, measured response to the emergence of a new covid variant, which the epidemiological world is still assessing? This requires patience, new variants have to be given time to demonstrate how they operate within the human body.
It is quite possible that the Omicron variation may turn out to be more infectious but less dangerous than previous variants. There is some evidence that this happened towards the end of the flu pandemic of 1918–20, although this is not completely clear. But at the moment, we have to accept that we simply don’t know, rather than childishly hoping that if we shut our eyes to its existence, covid will just ‘go away’.
This being so, here is an eminently sensible suggestion for a measured response while we are in the period of ‘not knowing.’
However, this is the solution that the DfE summarily rejected last year, with the result that schools had to close a day after they re-opened in January, leaving the then education minister, Gavin Williamson, with egg on his face. But we now have a different education minister. Perhaps he, like Scrooge, may be able to learn from previous mistakes to avoid repeating them over the Christmas period yet to come?
And hopefully he will have sufficient maturity to ignore the inflammatory, egocentric ramblings of the tabloid press, which have already begun.
It is becoming increasingly clear that keeping schools open until the stipulated date, in the face of an as-yet-unresearched covid variant, will create a logistical nightmare for families’ Christmas plans. The problem of sick or isolating children and teachers over the Christmas bank holiday period will be particularly stressful for families with very elderly or immunosuppressed members, some of whom will be facing the likelihood that they are celebrating their last Christmas. Surely, we must not lose sight of our humanity in the race to programme children towards the next assessment and/or OFSTED report.
What would happen if schools closed on 10 December?
Obviously, closing schools early would inevitably cause some amount of disruption. However, preventing children from mass mixing from 10 December until 3 January would create an infection stop-gap of three weeks, by which time epidemiologists will have a much clearer picture of how the Omicron variant is operating. There would be no bar to staff training taking place during this time, providing sensible precautions (such as masking and social distancing) are in place; a lesson the Westminster government only recently seems to have learned.
So, what are the main advantages and disadvantages? It is clear that both staff and pupil absence are creating problems at the moment. Closing early would curtail this process, most particularly the increased risk of infection that arises when cohorts have to be amalgamated due to teacher absence.
There are now online resources in place for pupils to access if head teachers are concerned about work not being covered. And possibly primary schools could set Christmas project work in the open air, a healthier option for younger children who are not imminently working towards external assessment.
The most obvious downside to such a strategy is parents needing to arrange care for younger children and children with special needs. Perhaps the government could make it clear that it expects employers to operate family friendly policies this December. One plus point is that fully vaccinated grandparents, extended family and friends can now help out, which was not a possibility during the first lockdown.
Being human in a pandemic
Given the current circumstances, closing schools early for Christmas would seem the best policy. It creates a stop-gap while more information is gathered about Omicron. It also stands to reduce the overall R number, based on previous data.
While we may hope that the Omicron variant is less deadly, and not excessively vaccine resistant, we must act as though it might be until we know it is not. That way, we will avoid repeating the mistakes of last Christmas, which ended up costing lives.
But is the current education secretary reflective and responsible to do this, or is he yet another who thinks he can manipulate the population through social and mass media gaslighting? Only one thing is certain: we will soon find out.