Parents United is a grassroots, parent-led support group formed on Facebook in May 2020 following a news leak which revealed plans for children to return to school after a period of home-schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic. Its founders, Tony Dadd and Gemma Sewell, were among the many parents who believed it was too early and too unsafe to do so at that time. The group now stands at over 23,000 members. We spoke to Gemma in a Live Q&A event on our Covid-19 Support Community platform to find out more about Parents United and their work to #MakeSchoolsSafe and #ProtectOurCommunities throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Sending your child to school can be a difficult decision for families with a vulnerable person living at home. Schools are known to have high rates of transmission, so the risks of children catching the virus and spreading it within the home are greater. But the decision can also be tough for parents who recognise their schools aren’t doing enough to prevent the virus from circulating. Gemma says, “it feels unacceptable – particularly when we're not being given the choice or the support to make safer choices for our families.”
Previously, protections were put into place in schools which organised classes into bubbles. This meant that if one child caught the virus, it would be contained within a small group who would have to self-isolate to prevent passing it on to others. However not all schools stuck to these measures and instead abandoned them when restrictions eased in the wider society. They returned to unreliable methods like opening a window to ventilate classrooms full of children even though the virus was – and is – an ongoing threat.
Gemma reminds us that although the coronavirus mortality rate amongst children is low, it’s not zero. In fact, the rate of hospitalisations in children aged 0-15 with Covid-19 has been slowly rising since September. This is one of the reasons why Covid safety measures are needed in schools.
Recommended Covid Safety Measures in Schools
Close Contacts Must Isolate: This recommendation was removed for adults in the workplace as well as children in schools in August of this year. The difference between these groups is that a majority of school children and teenagers are not yet vaccinated. Therefore, when the virus spreads amongst age groups in schools there is nothing to protect others from catching it nor an attempt to contain it.
Reduce Class Sizes: Efforts were made during the outbreak of Covid-19 to reduce the number of children in schools by allowing only children of healthcare workers or those from disadvantaged backgrounds to be taught in class. Classes have now returned to their former sizes, meaning children are in close proximity to one another, breathing the same air. Gemma says, “there’s not much space in a school, you’ve got about half the space in a classroom per person as you have in a working environment as a legal minimum.”
Masks are another form of protection which should remain in schools – and our wider communities – to reduce the spread of the virus. It is important to remember is that Covid is an airborne virus: it transmits between people at close range through inhalation. The quality of our masks and the need for improved indoor ventilation are therefore essential to limit the spread of infection. This means wearing a tight-fitting mask lined with a filter to avoid SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) particles seeping in through the gaps. Gemma recommends FFP2 grade masks. She says, “all it takes is using one of the mask fitters that you get in with the box of surgical masks. You can put your straps on at the back of your head to get a better fit and spread out the mask to cover your nose, face and chin.” A report by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reinforces this point, showing that mask fitters can increase the wearer’s protection from SARS-CoV-2 aerosols by more than 90% when secured over a medical procedure (surgical) mask. Similarly, wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask – “double masking” – could reduce exposure to the virus by more than 90%.
Opening a window in comparison to these measures does not offer the same level of protection for children, but it does help to dilute the concentration of harmful particles in the air. Even during the winter months this could be a practical solution for schools. Gemma suggests teachers try opening the window very slightly to begin with and asking children to wear their coats during this time.