The need for debate and discussion

The trouble with schools is . . . yes, you’ve guessed it, they’re still closed. 

I start with an apology.  I really can’t shake virus related issues out of my head at the moment and so I’m far too distracted to write anything meaningful about practice in schools.   Hopefully the next one.

I attended a fantastic webinar a few nights ago, titled Covid-19 and Schools by the British Medical Journal (Click HERE), which I’d recommend to anyone working in education or with children.  It was both reassuring and gave me real hope that we can find a way out of this educational/schooling nightmare we find ourselves in.

The Webinar was introduced by Fiona Godlee, the Editing Chief of the BMJ. Her opening address contained the most refreshing words I have heard since this virus started when she stated that the:

“concern about the polarisation of debates and hardening of positions on key issues, is making it harder to make really good progress on our understanding of how to respond to this extraordinary pandemic.   Move away from rigid certainty and respect uncertainty.   Acknowledging uncertainty, a little more might improve not only the atmosphere of the debate and the science, but also public trust.” 

She was quoting and paraphrasing from a BMJ Editiorial (Click HERE to read it) titled: “Covid-19’s known unknowns”, with the subtitle: The more certain someone is about Covid-19 the less you should trust them.  

Before I go on to discuss my thoughts following this webinar, If you are not able to watch the whole two hours (I recommend you do), then the parts I would definitely not miss are:

  • The first two presenters – Alasdare Munro and Muge Cevik
  • Then go to 1:03:00 to watch one presenter – Sunil Bhopal 
  • Finally go to 1:29:20 and watch two more speakers.  Ibukun C Akinboyo and Margrethe Greve-Isdahl

As time has progressed through this pandemic, I have felt it become increasingly difficult to discuss the efficacy of our responses to the virus; certainly for all aspects of the virus, but for me, in relation to schools in particular.  From where I stand, I’ve watched the UK Governments constantly churning out frightening figures (when looked at as raw numbers without any linked percentages/comparisons/contexts). This has been supported by the media’s terrifying headlines that so often bear little in common with what are often very good articles below the heading. 

All of this has indeed resulted in a polarisation of views, where sadly the vast majority in the middle, appear to be in paralysis at the moment. People’s minds may be so preoccupied by the virus and their response to it, that there is no space left for them to think outside of their current situation and so debate or questioning may be a closed book to them.

The webinar made me question whether I have been too certain of my views when there are so many known unknowns out there.  The big unknown for me has always been the extent to which young people transmit the virus to adults.  I believe this is the key to reopening schools. 

What there does not appear to be is any study into the rate of transmission from child to adult especially in the home.  In some ways it’s a hard one to measure because if a parent contracts the virus, we can’t be 100% certain it was from the child. 

Where I think I’ve been going wrong is in my long-held certainty that children are minimal transmitters to adults without any significant data to back this.  It has been nothing more than a hunch and hunches can be dangerous.  In our school amongst students we have had no in school transmission apart one possible case of teacher to student and one possible student to student (Year 7).  We have had 23 student cases in total.  Looking at these figures alone would not be enough to support my assertion.  Although they are too small to reach a conclusion; we are situated in a new well-ventilated building and so I would need evidence from many schools in various buildings to make any assertion that children are minimal transmitters to adults.

However, there is nothing wrong with me having this hunch, if I turn it into a hypothesis which encourages research and debate. There are figures which suggest that the rate of transmission by students to teachers is low (see for example this BBC article), but there is little research into transmission rates by children in households.  At our school, we called each of the parents whose child had contracted the virus and asked them if they subsequently contracted it (there was at least a gap of three weeks between the child testing positive and the parent being asked).   We gave them a choice of three answers:

  • No, we didn’t contract the virus
  • Yes, at least one of us went on to contract the virus, but not sure if it was from our child
  • Yes at least one of us contracted the virus and it was definitely from our child

We put the answers onto an anonymous spreadsheet with only year group, gender and date child was tested positive of the child on it along with the answers. Imagine if every school did this, we could have a national database within a week!  It would tell us the degree of transmission in each year group and while there may be a degree of inaccuracy, it would give us enough information to make more informed decisions.  You may be interested to know that 22 of our families did not go on to contract the virus and one parent is not sure how he contracted the virus as he had met others.  Unfortunately, this does not come anywhere close to being a big enough case study

Why am I so interested in this data and why do I think it’s key?  We know that the vast majority of children do not have adverse effects if they contract the virus and this appears to be the case with the new variants.  The evidence has been around for a while and is illustrated in the webinar.  The evidence also suggests that those who are asymptomatic don’t transmit a large payload to others.  Parents are now aware of this also, but the one argument I always hear is: What if my child comes home from school and transmits the virus to X who is vulnerable?

Knowing the extent to which young people transmit to adults will help reassure people.  The information in the webinar certainly reassured me, but even the speakers say, there is still not enough research in this area. We can collect this, but whole local authorities/multi academy trusts need to be doing it and sharing it on a national database.  I’m not a researcher and not a statistician, but I’d hope this information would help us. 

We’re all closed just now I know, but if we are still collecting information from parents regarding positive student cases, then we can not only research past transmissions but look at transmissions since the new variants were announced. 

The uncertainty around age has led to us stating with certainty that those of primary age are safer than those in secondary.  I would question how we can draw a line here?  Surely there is a sliding scale with anomalies in all age groups.  No age group can be proclaimed safe and no age group unsafe to others research such as this move a little more towards certainty or at least possessing ‘knowns’. 

If nothing else this will give us more evidence to support the case for opening schools and keeping them opened for all.  It will provide us with more ‘knowns’ when considering the balance between the short-term health of the nation and the long-term wellbeing and welfare of young people. For me, there is no debate to be had, but the more evidence or ‘knowns’ we have to reassure others the better. 

Let’s not forget, there is a need for haste.  Watch what Sunil Bhopal in the Webinar has to say about wellbeing and welfare.  Or read this BBC online article “Covid: The devastating toll of the pandemic on children” by Nick Triggle.  I also worry about the lack of contact we are having with each other and what impact this is having on our immune systems (flu may not be high on the agenda, but will it be next year?).

On another point, although the article by Nick Triggle mentioned above is excellent, I tend to think it should be titled: “Covid: The devastating toll of our responses to the pandemic on children”.  We are now beginning to hear the virus being blamed for excess deaths and in this case the impact on young people, however we are responsible for our responses to the virus. 

Acknowledging the uncertainties we face, will hopefully open doors for us to have more informed debate and discussion regarding our responses to the virus.   We need reasoned philosophical debate concerning the ethics of our decision making, which applies ethical analysis to help unravel some of the uncertainty our known unknowns present us with.

Finally, UNICEF have an initiative called “Child Friendly Cities”.  While our schools are closed in this country we certainly do not have child friendly cities.  Let’s open our minds up to looking for ways to making our cities, towns and villages friendly and supportive to children once more, before we discover the future harm that has been done.

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