Schools Told to Plan for More Remote Learning and for Return of Face Masks

The Department for Education (DfE) has instructed schools to be prepared for the reintroduction of face masks in classrooms and for the return of remote learning in case of “local outbreaks of Covid”. The Times Educational Supplement has the story.

In an email bulletin sent to schools this afternoon [by the DfE] they have been told to ensure they have management plans outlining how they would operate if any of the restrictions in the new Contingency Framework document were to be introduced in their area.

The updated framework also sets out how councils and public health directors can make decisions to introduce Covid safety measures at a single school or cluster of schools but where there is a need to address Covid across an entire area decisions will be taken by ministers.

The new framework tells schools to ensure they have plans in place for:

~ Reintroducing asymptomatic testing sites.

~ Reintroducing mask-wearing in communal areas and/or classrooms.

~ Limiting residential visits, open days, transition days and performances.

~ Limiting attendance to primary school pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2.

~ Limiting attendance secondary school students in Years 10, 11, 12 and 13, as well as vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.

The document also says that schools should plan for the reintroduction of shielding but says that a decision to bring this back can only be done by the national Government.

In a daily bulletin sent to schools, the department says: “We have updated the contingency framework following the Government’s announcement on enhanced response packages to tackle the Delta variant in some areas.

“The contingency framework describes the principles of managing local outbreaks of Covid in education and childcare settings. It covers all types of measures that settings should be prepared for, which includes those that may be recommended as part of an enhanced response area.

“All education and childcare settings should have outbreak management plans outlining how they would operate if any of the measures described within the contingency framework were recommended in their area for any reason.

“Secondary schools and colleges should ensure their outbreak management plans cover the possibility that it is advised that face coverings should temporarily be worn more widely in settings in their area and that asymptomatic testing sites (ATS) may be required.”

It also says that additional guidance has been issued to the Directors of Public Health advising that they work in partnership with schools and colleges before reinstating ATS.

Schools had previously been told, earlier this year, that they must not implement any of the Covid containment measures without “explicit agreement” from the DfE but the new framework sets out how this can be done at local level if it only involves a small number of schools.

As we reported earlier today, London councils are also hoping to build “temporary body storage facilities” in the event of an “excess deaths situation”, largely due to concerns about the Indian Delta Covid variant. Just when we should be unlocking, the authorities appear to be gearing up for further restrictions.

The Times Educational Supplement report is worth reading in full.

Education Charity Finds that School Closures Hampered Students’ Learning

When it comes to school closures, the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker codes countries on four-point scale from 0 (“no measures”) to 3 (“require closing all levels”). This measure is accompanied by a “flag” indicating whether closures were required in specific regions or the entire country.

Since the start of the pandemic, the UK has spent 253 days with a rating of 3. This means there have been 253 days on which schools at all levels were closed in at least part of the country. The only European country with more days of school closures is Italy. How have such closures affected students’ learning? 

I’ve already written about two studies which found sizeable negative effects. One, based on data from the Netherlands, found that students made considerably less progress in 2020 than in each of the three preceding years. Another, based on Brazilian data, found that the change in dropout risk was substantially higher in 2020 than in 2019. But what about the UK? 

The Education Endowment Foundation – a charity founded in 2011 – has collated all the best studies on the impact of school closures on students’ learning. As it stands, their list includes six UK studies and seven international studies.

According to the charity, research to date “shows a consistent pattern”. Specifically, students have made “less academic progress” than in previous years, and the attainment gap between more and less advantaged students seems to have grown. 

As to the UK itself, “Studies from NFER, Department for Education and GL assessment show a consistent impact of the first national lockdown with pupils making around 2 months less progress than similar pupils in previous years.”

However, this figure may understate learning losses, given that the relevant studies only examined the impact of the first national lockdown. Looking at the Blavatnik School’s database, the UK has spent more than 100 days with a rating of 3 since October of 2020. 

Why might the attainment gap between more and less advantaged students have grown while schools were closed? There are a number of possibilities, including differences in parental support, access to technology (e.g., high-speed broadband) and the use of private tuition.

Overall, the studies reviewed by the Education Endowment Foundation call the Government’s policy of school closures into serious question. Although there are plans to extend the school day by 30 minutes as a way of helping pupils catch up, it’s unclear whether this will be enough to correct the learning losses that have already been sustained. 

Keeping Schools Open Had Only a Minor Impact on the Spread of COVID-19 in Sweden

Sweden was one of the few Western countries that kept schools open in the spring of 2020. Pre-schools, primary schools and lower-secondary schools (for those up to age 16) continued with in-person teaching, whereas upper-secondary schools switched to online instruction on March 18th.

Despite this, zero Swedish children died of COVID-19 up to the end of June. In fact, only 15 were admitted to the ICU, and four of these children had a serious underlying health condition. 

So keeping schools open didn’t cause any deaths among Swedish children. But did it increase the spread of COVID-19? Although evidence suggests that children are less infectious than adults, their level of infectiousness is not zero. In addition, teachers could transmit the virus to one another in the staff room, and parents could do so when picking their children up from school.

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Stockholm and Upsala University examined the impact of keeping schools open on the spread of COVID-19 in Sweden. Their analysis focused on the period from March 25th to June 30th. 

The authors used rigorous methods to estimate the causal impact of keeping schools open on COVID-19 outcomes among parents, and among teachers. Specifically, they compared parents whose youngest child was in the last year of lower-secondary school (Year 9) to those whose youngest child was in the first year of upper-secondary school (Year 10). 

This method ensured that the two groups of parents were as similar as possible with respect to other possible causes of COVID-19 outcomes. But to be safe, the authors controlled statistically for characteristics like the age, occupation and region of the parents.

They found that there was only one additional positive PCR test per 1,000 parents among those whose youngest child was in the last year of lower-secondary school. They also looked at the number of diagnosed cases of COVID-19, but found this did not differ significantly between the two groups of parents. 

When the authors compared teachers from lower-secondary schools with those from upper-secondary schools, the differences were somewhat larger. However, the overall impact of keeping schools open on the spread of COVID-19 was small. The authors estimate that keeping schools open resulted in 620 more cases in a country that saw more than 53,000 up to mid June. 

They conclude that closing schools “is a costly measure with potential long-run detrimental effects for students”. And their results are “are in line with theoretical work indicating that school closure is not an effective way to contain SARS-CoV-2”.

School Leaders Say Children Should Be Vaccinated before the Start of the Summer Holidays

Following the approval of the use of the Pfizer vaccine in those aged 12-15 by the U.K. medicines regulator, school leaders have called on the Government to vaccinate schoolchildren against Covid before the start of the summer holidays. Their hope is that pupils will be fully vaccinated before returning to the classroom in September. The MailOnline has the story.

Ministers have asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) whether to give the jab to teenagers – the current rollout is set to stop at age 18 except for children with serious health conditions. 

The JCVI – which normally rules who should get a vaccine – is expected to tell Number 10 that jabbing children is a “political” decision and will leave the ball in ministers’ court. 

Teaching unions and school leaders today said starting vaccinating children soon could ensure they have had both jabs by the time they start the school year in September.

But vaccinating children against the virus is a controversial issue because youngsters only have a tiny risk of getting seriously ill and their immunity would likely only protect older adults. 

More than 100 cross-party MPs and the World Health Organisation have said the priority should be to get vaccine doses abroad to poorer countries where vulnerable people still haven’t been jabbed before giving them to low-risk children.

Hamid Patel, Chief Executive of the Star Academies school trust based in Blackburn – the area of the country with the most cases of the Covid Indian variant – said schoolchildren should be vaccinated as a matter of priority.

He said there would be a much higher uptake if children were given the jab during term time before the school holidays…

And Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, also urged the JCVI to consider expanding the rollout to teenagers.

He said offering them the vaccine would “protect the wider adult population who are at greater risk from Covid”.

There are “ethical dilemmas” to be considered when it comes to the decision on whether or not to vaccinate children against Covid, an expert has said.

Professor Anthony Harnden, Deputy Chairman of the JCVI, said while a “very small minority” of children have been severely affected by the virus, children “in the main” do not get severe illness.

He told BBC Breakfast: “I think the vast majority of benefit won’t be to children, it will be an indirect benefit to adults in terms of preventing transmission and protecting adults who haven’t been immunised, for whatever reason haven’t responded to the vaccine and therefore that presents quite a lot of ethical dilemmas as to whether you should vaccinate children to protect adults.”

He added: “We need to be absolutely sure that the benefits to them (children) and potentially to society far outweigh any risks.”

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Health Secretary Matt Hancock says vaccinating children in the U.K. against Covid will take priority over donating doses to other countries.

School Day Could Be Extended under £15 Billion Scheme to Help Pupils Make Up for Lost Time

The Department for Education (DfE), which was last week accused of being “surprisingly resistant” to investigating the shortfalls in its Covid response, is now reportedly backing “sweeping reform” to help make up for the disruption caused to education by lockdown – and to avoid the £1.5 trillion cost of doing nothing. This could include extending the school day by half an hour under a £15 billion “Covid [that is, lockdown] rescue plan”. The Times has the story.

A leaked presentation of a report by Sir Kevan Collins, the Government’s Education Recovery Commissioner, calls for all children to receive an extra 100 hours of schooling each year from 2022, with a minimum 35-hour week.

The ambitious plan for England proposes extra tutoring for five million pupils and additional training for 500,000 teachers. It also hints that an extra year of sixth-form should be considered if teenagers cannot complete A-level courses in time.

The report warns that the cost to the country of inaction could be £1.5 trillion, 100 times the cost of the three-year package, but the Treasury is thought to be offering only £1.5 billion, a tenth of what is said to be needed to help pupils to bounce back from the pandemic.

A 56-page presentation based on the report, dated April 15th, is described as a draft that is 90% complete. One Whitehall source said that nothing had “changed fundamentally” since then.

At the heart of the document are the “three Ts” – extra time, teaching and tutoring. It says that all three combined are essential to catch up. This means lengthening the school day, improving teaching through more training, and providing tutoring on top of lessons.

Schools are likely to have a degree of freedom over how they choose to extend the day. Adding the 100 hours evenly each day would roughly add up to half an hour of extra schooling. Teachers would be paid more for the work.

Boris Johnson has been briefed on the findings, and in meetings with Collins has indicated support for the plan…

The DfE is also backing sweeping reform. However, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, has balked at the cost of the package, which is equivalent to about £700 per pupil over three years. One insider described the £1.5 billion offered by the Treasury as “ridiculous”.

The news comes as the Times Education Commission embarks on a year-long inquiry that will lead to recommendations for reform…

Children have missed almost half a year of in-person schooling, with about 23 weeks of school closures during the pandemic. According to the report, the U.K. had the longest closures of schools and universities combined in Europe.

Worth reading in full.

Why Are the Teaching Unions Such Lockdown Zealots?

We’re publishing an original article today by two social scientists – Professor Donald S. Siegel and Professor Robert M. Sauer – about the disgraceful behaviour of Britain’s teaching unions over the past 15 months. They have colluded with officials to not only close schools, but keep them closed for as long as possible and, once they reopened, to keep mask mandates in place. At all times they have acted in the interests of their dues-paying members rather than the children those members are supposed to be teaching. Here is an extract:

What motivates local and national politicians to collude with public sector unions to prolong lockdowns and continue the confinement and deformity of the nation’s children? First, trade unions constitute major voting blocs. Second, it is important that politicians keep their trade union friends for political cover. Remember that expert committees, most notably SAGE, have misled the government with their pseudo-scientific ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’, so elected officials are now presiding over the single greatest government failure of all time.

Not only is SAGE a primary cause for COVID-19 policy travesty, credit must also be given to the trade unions for exerting undue influence on politicians charged with deciding how and when to ‘reopen’ schools. Recall that when our state-run Covid religion was established in March 2020, a totalitarian/Orwellian taxonomy of “essential” and “nonessential” workers and industries was developed. Teachers were deemed “essential” workers. Unlike many “nonessential” workers, teachers received full pay during quarantines and lockdowns, with virtually no job losses in the sector, while children remained at home to learn online, often with inferior Internet connections and overwhelmed parents to supervise them.

Unlike almost all other “essential” workers, most teachers have not physically reported to work since March 2020. Also, in some cases, teachers were vaccinated before many others in their age groups. The forced masking of students as young as four for six hours a day is designed to protect teachers, not students.

Worth reading in full.

Department for Education Is “Surprisingly Resistant” to Investigating the Failures in Its Covid Response, Says New Report

The Department for Education’s (DfE) lack of planning for how to deal with a pandemic, along with its failure to set standards for remote learning when lockdowns struck, resulted in children receiving “unequal [educational] experiences” over the past year, according to a new report. This report also says that the department has been “surprisingly resistant” to investigating the shortfalls in its Covid response. The Guardian has the story.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) also said there was evidence that the Government’s £1.7 billion catch-up programme – designed to restore the learning lost during school closures – may not be connecting with many of the most disadvantaged children. The committee’s report describes the DfE as having “worthy aspirations but little specific detail”.

Meg Hillier, Chair of the PAC, said: “The pandemic has further exposed a very ugly truth about the children living in poverty and disadvantage, who have been hit particularly hard.

“Online learning was inaccessible to many children even in later lockdowns and there is no commitment to ongoing additional funding for IT. Schools will be expected to fund laptops out of their existing, and already squeezed, budgets.”

Hillier said the DfE “appears uninterested in learning lessons from earlier in the pandemic”, preferring to wait for later public inquiries.

“It shows little energy and determination to ensure that its catch-up offer is sufficient to undo the damage of the past 14 months,” Hillier said.

The report, after hearings conducted by the bipartisan committee, was deeply critical of the DfE’s failings towards children with special educational needs and disabilities, many of who struggled with remote learning, and over the future of the more than one million digital devices it had distributed to schools at a cost of £400 million.

The DfE told the committee that the laptops and tablets were now owned by schools and local authorities, which would have to maintain and update them using existing budgets.

The committee accused the DfE of being “unprepared” for the disruption despite taking part in the Government’s 2016 cross-departmental exercise to test the U.K.’s response to a pandemic, called Operation Cygnus. The MPs also found that the DfE was “surprisingly resistant” to investigating its response since March 2020.

Numerous studies have highlighted that pupils made little to no progress while learning from home – so why the reluctance from the DfE to investigate its errors in fixing this?

The Guardian report is worth reading in full.

Productivity Losses Caused by School Closures in the U.S. Will Lead to a 3.6% Decrease in GDP by 2050, According to a New Study

A new U.S. study provides insight into the long-term economic effects of school closures, showing that the costs of lockdowns will be felt long after they’ve ended. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School believe that productivity losses caused by school closures during lockdowns will lead to a 3.6% decrease in GDP and a 3.5% decrease in hourly wages by 2050, “relative to the counterfactual where there had been no disruption to learning”. Here are the key findings.

Studies have found that remote education reduces learning outcomes for students and infer that current students are likely to earn less in future wages as a result of lower labour productivity. Labour productivity is an integral component of the production of goods, services, and wealth in an economy. Current cohorts of students with reduced education and lower productivity will be a drag on the future GDP of the United States for decades in the future…

Table 1 shows projected economic effects of school closures relative to a counterfactual where learning was never disrupted by the pandemic. As the cohorts of affected students enter the workforce, average labour productivity decreases relative to the counterfactual. However, less productive workers are a small proportion of the economy’s labour supply and younger workers tend to be less productive, so the aggregate effect is muted initially, with labour productivity decreasing by 0.6% in 2030 relative to the counterfactual scenario. As the affected cohorts age, making up a larger proportion of the workforce and approaching their peak earning years, the relative drop in labour productivity increases to 2.4% in 2040 and 3.3% in 2050.

…Note that current primary schoolers will be aged 34 to 40 in 2050, so the drop in their productivity will continue to affect the economy for many years afterwards.

In an effort to stave off the damage caused by the loss of education, the researchers recommend that the next school year should be extended by one month. They project that this would lower the reduction in GDP from 3.6% to 3.1%.

Extending the 2021-22 school year by one month would cost about $75 billion nationally but would limit the reduction in GDP to 3.1%. This smaller reduction in GDP produces a net present value gain of $1.2 trillion over the next three decades, equal to about a $16 return for each $1 invested in extending the 2021-22 school year.

In Britain, where the impact of school closures is likely to be just as bad for the economy, the Chair of the Education Select Committee says that extending school days is “a serious solution for the Government to consider“. Others, including the Education Policy Institute, have proposed that some pupils should repeat the last school year completely.

The Wharton School study is worth reading in full.

Children Told They Must Continue to Wear Face Masks in Classrooms by Local Authorities in Blackburn and Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton

The Indian variant has been used to justify the Government U-turning on ending mask-wearing in the classroom, with schools in areas where the strain is more dominant having been told by the local authorities to keep to the mask mandate in place. The Telegraph has the story.

Whitehall officials have agreed with directors of public health at Blackburn and Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton councils that masks should continue to be worn in lessons and corridors.

It comes amid rising concern about a surge in the Indian variant of Covid, which early data suggests could be more transmissible than other variants.

The Prime Minister announced at the start of last week that from May 17th, secondary pupils would no longer be required to wear face masks during the school day.  

But the Telegraph understands that by Friday evening, deals had been struck with several local councils to extend the use of masks in the classroom.  

A Government spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister has set out the measures needed to tackle the new variant of concern. In line with our plans published earlier this week to address variants of concern in education, we have also agreed with Directors of Public Health that face coverings will remain in place in Blackburn with Darwen, Bolton, Lancashire and Sefton. We are continuing to work closely with local authorities in these areas.”

The Department for Education (DfE) issued guidance last week which said schools should not seek to implement “restrictive measures” without the “explicit approval” of ministers.

Officials insisted that the national guidance remains that face masks are no longer needed for children while they are at school.

But they added that directors of public health at a handful of local councils and borough councils have been given explicit permission by the Government to advise schools that face masks must be worn at all times when indoors if it is not possible to socially distance.

Other schools have decided to continue instructing children to wear face masks in the classroom without approval from local directors of public health, despite the DfE sayings schools shouldn’t be doing so.

The Telegraph report is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: The UsForThem campaign group says this is “the quickest U-turn in the history of U-turns and a body blow for children”.

Schools Ignoring Change in Government’s Guidelines on Mask Wearing

The Department for Education (DfE) has, as reported in Today’s Update, made it clear that schools cannot decide by themselves to reintroduce face coverings in the classroom when the mask mandate is removed by the Government on May 17th. Instead, the decision to temporarily reintroduce mask-wearing in response to “localised outbreaks” can only be made by “local directors of public health”. These must take “educational drawbacks” into account. The DfE said in an email to the campaign group UsForThem:

Given the negative impact that face coverings have on teaching, learning and wellbeing and current epidemiological information, their use in classrooms or by pupils and students in communal areas is not recommended at the current time.

Despite this, some schools have decided – independently of “local directors of public health”, and regardless of the costs on teaching and learning – to ignore the upcoming change in the Government’s guidelines and to continue instructing children to wear face masks in the classroom. One such school (the Friesland School in Nottingham) has written to parents saying that their children will have to continue wearing masks because local infection rates are higher than the national average.

Due to local infection rates being currently higher than the national rate, we are taking a measured approach to the easing of our Covid precautions at Friesland School.

We are requesting that face coverings continue to be used indoors from May 17th by students, including in classrooms. Furthermore, and in accordance with Government guidelines, staff and visitors will continue to wear face coverings indoors as they do now.

In the letter, the school’s headteacher justified his decision by claiming some students wanted to carry on wearing masks because they were “used to wearing them”.

[Members of the school’s Student Council] were very much of the view that the majority of students were now used to wearing them and that it would be sensible to continue with masks in the short term.

Perhaps the DfE should be more clear about the right (or lack thereof) of schools to impose mask mandates independently of local public health bodies.