Backlash over lack of coronavirus protections in England’s schools

An international group of scientists, supported by parents and educators, today called on U.K. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to re-introduce a raft of pandemic protections for children in schools, warning that scrapping most of those measures is “reckless.”

Children across the U.K. are returning to school at a time when rates of infection are 26 times higher in the broad population than this time last year — but this time, they face the more infectious Delta variant, the groups warned in a letter to the British Medical Journal.

Serious cases among children are not uncommon, with 2,300 kids under 18 hospitalized with COVID-19 in the past two months, and 40-50 hospitalizations in that group per day. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 34,000 children living with long COVID in the U.K., the letter points out. It also notes that one in 50 primary school children and one in 40 secondary school children currently have prevalent infection.

Despite this rising risk, England has gone against the advice of both the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which call for vaccinating teenagers and ensuring pupils and staff wear masks.

Instead, Williamson’s department states that masks aren’t necessary in classes and has dropped the requirement for social bubbles and contact tracing. Children won’t be required to isolate if there’s a case in their class, except “in exceptional cases.” Antigen tests twice a week for secondary schools will run through September and then be reviewed.

The authors list nine mitigation policies, including vaccinating all 12s and over; reinstating face masks in secondary schools; making urgent investments in ventilation and filtration systems; reinstating bubbles and contact tracing; and supporting and allowing remote learning.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also relaxed their rules on contact tracing, isolation and bubbles, but Scotland has maintained face coverings for secondary school staff and students since schools re-opened August 17. Cases have also been rising sharply there since early August.

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