How can we #MakeSchoolsSafe and #ProtectOurCommunities throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?

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

  • Ventilation: CO2 monitors were promised for schools across the UK with £25 million in government funding to support the supply. Yet many have failed to appear or have arrived in short quantities. This causes problems and inconsistencies in schools as monitors are needed to assess the levels of ventilation in all classrooms.

  • 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.

When it’s cold outside, you get a better rate of air exchange and if that’s well understood, [teachers and schools] might negotiate with it a bit more rather than just dismissing it."

- Gemma Sewell

It’s conversations like these between parents, teachers and schools that Parents United helps to facilitate. They work alongside organisations such as the Public Interest Law Centre and the Good Law Project to resolve conflicts relating to fines over school attendance. “What everybody wants is for a good relationship to be maintained and a compromise to be met,” says Gemma, “we discuss with people what the best options might be.” Parents United opens up communication between schools and parents to explore other topics too, like allowing their child to wear a mask in class, or sit next to an open window or arrange for a staggered drop off to avoid contact with larger crowds.

For families who have been given authorised absence from their schools, Parents United offers a Learning Community where parents can share tips and resources on how to keep their children engaged with learning materials and ensure they get the best possible learning experience at home. They also use social media platforms to share scientific research on subjects like vaccinations for those who want more information but don’t know where to find advice they can trust. Parents United directs them towards the accessible and reliable support that they need.

Parents United plans to continue campaigning for school policy changes in relation to better ventilation, more CO2 monitors and raising awareness on the airborne nature of the coronavirus. These steps in addition to wearing masks and social distancing are “actions people can take to support themselves, the schools they work in or their children go to, and therefore the wider community and the nation as a whole.” – “a realistic goal”, according to Gemma.

Nevertheless, Gemma recognises the challenges they will face in the process. “There’s a desire to pretend that [Covid-19] is all going to go away with vaccinations. But it isn’t that simple because it takes time to vaccinate people and vaccinations wane so are not perfect.” These attitudes are what encourage schools, restaurants and other public facilities to make use of their spaces as they had done in the past and fill them to the pre-pandemic capacities they were built for. But without proper ventilation within these buildings, it becomes a real health risk. “It’s completely unfair on the public not to tell them this vital health information,” Gemma says, “What we need are multiple layers: we know this isn’t going to go away with vaccinations alone. Masks are cheap. […] Opening a window is free. But you have to tell people how to do it effectively.”  

What happens next for Parents United will be decided by the number of Covid cases and rates of infections in schools. But Gemma reassures us, “We’ll keep making that noise, supporting various groups and making it known that we are still here.”

  • Thanks to Gemma Sewell for joining this Live Q&A on our Community Platform. You can join our community by clicking here for more upcoming events like this. Or listen to the full recording on Covid Matters wherever you listen to podcasts.

Want to help? covid:aid is solely reliant on your donations to provide the best possible support to all those across the UK significantly affected by Covid-19.

Donate now