A new academic year is on the horizon for schools and universities, but how are staff and students feeling about resuming face-to-face teaching?

So far, the government has been accused of creating a ‘hit and hope‘ strategy as pupils return with fewer restrictions in place across all school years. Many of the restrictions from last year, such as year groups and family bubbles, have ultimately been scrapped and replaced with a simple PCR test. Students now only need to isolate if they have a positive test result. As for secondary school pupils, they have been advised to take two lateral flow tests in the first week before returning and to continue home testing throughout the term.

The Autumn Surge

Prof Christina Pagel, Mathematician and Professor of Operational Research at University College London and member of Independent SAGE, explains that an autumn surge in cases is ‘pretty inevitable’.

On the predicted rise of cases nationwide starting from September, Prof John Edmunds, a member of the SAGE advisory panel, gave the following statement to BBC 4’s Today programme:

‘I don’t want to say it’s just about schools opening because it isn’t; it’s with a wider reopening of society that I think we’d expect to see, now summer’s over, organizations will be starting to expect their employees back at work in the office, and I think that employees want to go back to the office, and all of that will add to increased contact rates and increased risk in society’.

How Prepared Are We?

In England, secondary school children and those in Sixth Form are being offered two rapid lateral flow tests up to a week apart. On-site asymptomatic testing will also be a key feature for those who cannot do a home test.

While the government is no longer recommending that children in England be kept in bubbles, regular testing has been advised to minimise the risk of asymptomatic infection.

North of the border in Scotland, where schools have resumed in late August, cases have been rising. One school in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, has had almost half of its students absent last Tuesday. First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has not ruled out a return to lockdown if the surge among school-aged children continues.

In Wales, 30,000 CO2 sensors and 1,800 ozone-disinfecting machines have been developed and provided to schools by Swansea University. According to the Welsh Government, exams are expected to go ahead at all levels in 2022.

According to an opinion piece by Ian Dunt, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has failed to understand the importance of ventilation in classrooms during the pandemic. Despite assuring parents that CO2 monitors will be installed at the start of the new academic year, his ‘programme’ has been beset by delays which Dunt calls an ‘astonishing failure’. It appears that Williamson’s interests lie elsewhere than prioritising the safety of school children. It took until 21 August for him to announce his programme for the CO2 monitors. Schools are expected to only get a partial rollout this autumn term.

Vaccinating More Children

The JCVI ruled against vaccinating healthy 12-15-year-olds. However, the idea has not been abandoned entirely by ministers. So far, an additional 200,000 vulnerable children have been advised by the JCVI to receive the Covid vaccine. Given the risk of further disruptions to schooling for children across the country, general secretary, Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders expressed his delight that the vaccine is being offered to more vulnerable children, saying: ‘the door appears to have been left at least partially open’.

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