The Education Minister intends to reopen the island’s schools after the Easter Holidays but will prioritise Years 11 and 13 alongside key worker and vulnerable children if necessary and is not totally ruling out Covid testing in schools.
Dr Alex Allinson also said he is disappointed that the island’s hub schools had to close, but given the spread of the virus, it was not possible to keep them open.
He said that exactly how to reopen schools in a safe manner is ‘difficult’ because of the way the Kent variant of Covid spread around the island’s schools before this third lockdown.
‘When we closed the schools down this time, we did open them all as hub schools, but it just went straight in there because the Kent variant is behaving in a very different way to the last two outbreaks’, Dr Allinson said.
He added: ‘This is affecting young people, particularly of school age and if you look at the stats, it is predominantly under 20s who have got it here this time. Now we know that young people are not usually that badly affected by the virus, but I’ve got friends whose kids have had it and they’ve been fairly sick, they’re not enjoying the experience, let’s put it that way. It hasn’t got the long term side effects unless people have got long term medical conditions but we had to close the schools, nurseries and childminders down because there was a worry from Public Health that not only was it coming into schools, but that schools were then spreading it out to different households as well.
‘We haven’t been able to reopen them because it’s still out there and the idea of having hub schools and bringing in households from lots of different areas doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea and we’ve had long conversations with Public Health who advised us against that.
‘On April 12, when schools are due to reopen, we plan to open all the schools. If we have the virus still circulating at the time, what we’re going to do is prioritise vulnerable children, key worker children and also Years 11 and 13 who need to start the work for their assessments. Worse case scenario we may have to bring them back with masks on or we may have to have social distancing with small spread out classes.
While Dr Allinson says he has no desire to introduce mandatory testing for Covid in the island’s schools, he has not completely ruled out some form of voluntary testing for students and teachers if the virus is still circulating when schools go back in April.
He said: ‘We’re looking into whether we have testing or not, we’re already offering the option to teachers, I really don’t want to go down the lines of compulsory testing at all because there are some kids who really don’t like swabs being stuck up their nose once or twice a week and I’ve had one or two parents saying I don’t want my kid to have to go through that and I completely understand that but we do need to try to make schools as safe as possible both for pupils and for staff when we reopen them.’
With the closure of hub schools, one area of concern for some people has been monitoring of vulnerable children who were previously allowed to remain in school when they closed to other students.
Dr Allinson said that teachers and schools have been reaching out to children and their parents by phone or even paying a visit to knock on their doors to ensure vulnerable children and their families were safe and secure during this lockdown, as they have done previously when some children did not attend the hub schools when they were open.
Protecting at Risk Children
While Covid predominantly affects older people worse than it does children, some with preexisting conditions, are at far higher risk from the virus. Because of this they are required to shield and stay at home to a greater extent than their friends. While trials are ongoing around the world about giving Covid vaccines to children, these have not yet been approved. Gef put the question to Dr Allinson asked by a father of one such child who wanted to know how the Minister and his department would make schools safe for these children.
Dr Allinson said: ‘We’ve had the same situation where teachers have had to shield but adults can now be vaccinated and the over 50s are getting their letters soon so we’ll have that full first phase. At the moment there are lots of studies going on into vaccinating children over the age of four, we don’t know when the results will come from that but right now the vaccines are licensed only for those over 16 or 18 in the case of AstraZeneca. What we’ve always had is a supportive programme for those who can’t come into school due to medical reasons and we have staff who will go out and support them at home until they can come into school and we will have to gear that up for those who can’t come into school.
‘Remote learning opens up the opportunities for a whole lot more but what we’ve tried to do throughout lockdowns is when we start opening up the schools is really respect parents’ decisions, we haven’t tried to make it mandatory or fine them, we’ve just tried to support them throughout and after lockdown.’
For those children who may have to continue to home school even if the schools reopen, Dr Allinson said the department will work to ensure their schoolwork doesn’t suffer but also that those childrens’ mental health isn’t impacted as their friends return to school.