Health campaigners have sent an open letter to Thanet’s MPs urging them to change the plans for the opening of schools in early January.
The letter from Save Our NHS in Kent (SONIK) says: “At the very least locally, schools cannot proceed back next week as they are (if they are to open at all!).Smaller class sizes in larger and better ventilated areas need to be arranged.”
The letter also calls for churches, church halls and community centres to be used to avoid overcrowding and large class numbers, with distance and blended learning to be employed to cut down attendance.
Primary pupils and students in Years 11-13 are due to return to class on January 4. Before Christmas government announced secondary students would have staggered returns to school as covid testing takes place.
Secondary-age pupils are being prioritised for testing in response to the recent high rates of coronavirus (COVID-19) infection.
All schools with secondary-age pupils, including special schools and alternative provision, will be offered the opportunity to test students, from the week of January 4.
In these schools with secondary-age pupils, vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and pupils in exam year groups (primarily years 11 and 13) are expected to return to school on the advertised first day of term and should be prioritised for testing.
All other pupils must be provided with remote education until January 11 when they will resume face-to-face attendance. Pupils will not need to have had a test in order to return to school on January 11.
But now the new, more virulent strain of covid is raising fears of increased infections for both students and staff.
A SONIK spokesperson said: “The new Covid variant is 56% more transmissible than the previous virus. Deaths and hospitalisations are predicted to be higher than the first peak of the virus. And the current lockdowns are unlikely to get the transmission rate R below 1 — which is the critical rate.
“Schools are places with high risk of transmission of the virus. Our MPs must be aware of this and they must act to protect the people of Thanet.”
Last week scientific group SAGE met and expressed the need for tighter guidelines to reduce transmission risk within schools.
In the Independent newspaper they said: “Children and young people at school tend to have a wide transmission circle which can endanger parents and grandparents. Whilst wishing to minimise disruption to education, stricter guidelines are urgently needed for reducing opportunities for infection.”
North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale has also contacted the Prime Minister’s office with his concerns about reopening of schools.
He said: “Teachers, school staff and parents need a clear and definitive statement that schools will not be required to reopen in January until effective vaccination is made available to teaching staff.
“Education is important but so are the lives and wellbeing of teachers and key working parents need time to plan for the care of their children.”
He asks the PM to make a statement in Parliament tomorrow (December 30).
South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay said schools need to remain open but staff should be prioritised for vaccination.
He said: “I appreciate concerns being raised about transmissibility of Covid within schools but there appears to be a continuing thread amongst those who air these fears – a desire to lock everything down, cease education and close the economy.
“I suspect a heavy dose of hard left politics at play by many of these new armchair specialists. The proposal by SONIK amplifies this with their call to deprive children of vital education for an unknown period until a wide rollout of vaccinations can be achieved. Additionally, with school closures comes the inability of many parents to work, putting more livelihoods at risk.
“I prefer to be honest with the public: even under a generous assessment of the logistics involved, widespread vaccinations will take some months to achieve governed by vaccine supply, the number of locations and trained vaccinators available.
“We must take precautions and manage risk in the interim just as all who work across healthcare, retail and deliveries have done throughout the pandemic to keep the country safe and provided for.
“Teachers are similarly doing essential work to ensure that the impact on education, a most precious resource, is not adversely impacted. I do however agree with many MP colleagues that teachers and school staff should be further prioritised in the earliest phase of vaccinations.”
The government is understood to have the reopening measures under review in light of the advice from SAGE. Reports today (December 29) also suggest ministers may decide schools in Tier 4 areas will remain shut until February.
Tomorrow also is the date government will review the covid tiers. Thanet, along with the rest of Kent, is currently under tier 4.
Government data published yesterday showed the rate of positive covid tests per 100,000 in Thanet is falling again but data may be incomplete due to the holiday period.
According to the government covid dashboard the Thanet figure is 565.8 per 100,000 for the seven days to December 23. This is the second lowest rate in Kent and Medway with only Tunbridge Wells having a lower number. However, the figure is still far above the national average of 378.6 per 100,000.