That is the call from the secretary of the Preston branch of the National Education Union (NEU), who says that combining this week’s holiday with a period of home learning - for all but the children of key workers and vulnerable children - could act as a so-called “circuit breaker” to slow transmission.
Ian Watkinson who also chairs the NEU’s health and safety group, believes that the move would not only be the best way of disrupting the virus - but would also cause less disruption to education than having multiple ‘bubbles’ of children sent into self-isolation because of concern over contact with possible Covid cases.
He was speaking after the NEU last week wrote to two of Lancashire’s directors of public health officially requesting a fortnight-long half-term closure for schools in Blackburn with Darwen and Burnley, which then both had the highest case rates in the county.
However, the latest data has shown a deteriorating picture elsewhere, with the rolling weekly infection rate per 100,000 people more than quadrupling in South Ribble, tripling in Preston and doubling in Chorley in the 14 days up to 27th May. In Ribble Valley over the same period, the case rate went nearly ten times higher and it increased by 15 times in Rossendale.
Lancashire districts currently account for eight out of the top 20 worst-affected areas in the UK on the Covid case rate measure - Blackburn with Darwen (1st), Rossendale (3rd), Hyndburn (4th), Ribble Valley (9th), Burnley (11th), Preston (12th), South Ribble (13th) and Chorley (19th).
Analysis by the Lancashire Post shows that case rates in Preston are highest amongst 15-19 year olds, followed by 10-14-year-olds. That position is reversed in Blackburn with Darwen and Rossendale.
Elsewhere, 15-19-year-olds have the highest case rates of any age group in South Ribble, Wyre and Blackpool and the second-highest in Chorley and Ribble Valley. The highest case rate in Fylde can be found amongst 10-14-year-olds.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Watkinson says that a circuit breaker for schools would “seem to be the right call at this time”.
“If things continue on the same trajectory, we are going to be firefighting outbreaks in the way we have been doing previously - the science points to it.
“SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] recommended a circuit breaker last year and it was ignored - and we saw what happened.
“Clearly, it’s schools that are driving transmission. We have got people travelling across boundary lines between boroughs, so it's spreading.
“We’ve been here before and nobody wants an entire county lockdown of some sort imposed on us by central government. Even with some parts of Lancashire not yet suffering as much as others, if an extra circuit break week or two of remote learning countywide could curb the spread of the so-called Indian variant, then it’s got to be worth considering,” said Mr. Watkinson.
As the Post revealed last week, almost 2,500 Lancashire school pupils were told to go into self-isolation in the seven days to 23rd May - with Chorley accounting for a quarter of that total. Eleven Central Lancashire schools were affected by self-isolations over the same period.
SAGE, which advises the government, has stated that there is a “realistic possibility” that the Indian variant - now officially named “Delta” by the World Health Organisation - is around 50 percent more transmissible than the Kent variant that has been dominant in the UK since late last year.
While some parents may balk at the prospect of even a brief return to blanket remote learning, Mr. Watkinson says that it may be better for pupils' education than an ever-increasing number of bubbles being put into self-isolation.
“Where schools stay open [during multiple self-isolations], the disruption to learning is huge and remote learning can't be staffed. But if schools close fully - other than to key worker and vulnerable children - they can deliver effective remote learning.
“Looking ahead, we also need to examine really closely what else can be done in schools - because it’s not just about this variant, it's about the other ones that are going to come along and [the need] to have things in place to take account of that.
“Everyone can put together a brilliant risk assessment - but if you're going to insist on full classrooms, with 30 kids and poor ventilation, then it’s not hard to work out what’s going to happen.
“[The government] needs to invest more in mitigation strategies - whether that’s better ventilation, smaller classes or more teachers - all the kind of stuff that’s going to bring down the number of people rammed into a classroom, breathing in the virus and taking it home to spread in the community,” said Mr. Watkinson, who added that it was “interesting” that some other parts of the world had now moved to vaccinate children.
Both the United States and Canada have expanded use of the Pfizer jab to incorporate children aged 12 upwards, while medical regulators in the EU also approved its use from that age earlier this month.
However, there is debate in the UK about the ethical and practical considerations of vaccinating children en masse against a disease that poses less risk to them than older age groups, but which they can nevertheless help to transmit.
The vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Sky News last weekend that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) was looking “very carefully” at the issue before making any recommendation - and stressed the need to ensure that vaccines were “incredibly safe before you give them to children”.
Commenting on the NEU’s call for a week of remote learning next week, a spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said: "We are currently advising schools to continue to follow the national government guidelines."
'LEARN TO LIVE WITH COVID'
Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown admits to being worried about the latest rise in Covid rates in the area, but believes that it is “too soon to tell” whether it will lead to any surge in hospitalisations now that the majority of older age groups have been vaccinated.
However, he says that in the meantime, he backs a “precautionary approach” - and believes that a week of home learning after half term would be worthwhile.
“I’m really conscious of saying to families who are struggling with work and juggling responsibilities that they should look after their kids for another week.
“But I want to be out of [all restrictions] on 21st June and there is a risk - although I think a small one - that if we don't get things under control in Preston, then the vast majority of the country will open up and we won’t. I’ve been lobbying to ensure that doesn’t happen,” added Cllr Brown, who also said that his call back in March for the vaccination programme in Preston to be accelerated had now been vindicated.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Chorley and South Ribble councils agree that speed of vaccinations - rather than any new restrictions - should be the priority in the face of rising infection rates locally.
South Ribble leader Paul Foster said that a spike in cases was not unexpected - and that "we’ve got to focus on living with the virus".
“The focus must be on supporting local councils in increasing testing and tracing - and to continue the roll-out of the vaccination programme, particularly in the areas where the variants are taking hold.
“Vaccinate the entire community and let’s get it done as quickly as possible as we know this is the way out of the pandemic.
“We will continue to liaise with colleagues across Lancashire and do everything we can to support the community, but we need support from the government to ensure resources are directed to us here in the North West.”
Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley echoed the sentiment that the rate of the ongoing vaccine rollout was now the best weapon against Covid.
"We knew cases were likely to rise as restrictions were lifted, but hospital admissions in Central Lancashire have been extremely low, which shows that the vaccine works really well in preventing serious illness.
“Rather than see any further impact on our communities and any localised restrictions we need to see the vaccine rollout continue at pace and reach as many people as possible as quickly as we can.
“We’ve got to learn to live with the virus and all efforts should be focussed on ensuring we can protect the most vulnerable while keeping society open.”
COVID CASE RATES IN CENTRAL LANCASHIRE
Covid case rates per 100,000 people in the week to 27th May, compared to week to 13th May - plus the raw number of confirmed infections over that period.
91.4 - up 134 percent (182 cases 13th-27th May)
112.5 - up 228 percent (245 cases 13th-27th May)
129.7 - up 890 percent (96 cases 13th-27th May)
105.6 - up 386 percent (147 cases 13th-27th May)
COVID CASE RATES IN OLDER CHILDREN ACROSS LANCASHIRE
The weekly rolling Covid case rates per 100,000 people in the 10-14 and 15-19-year-old age groups in each council area as at 27th May, followed by the overall rate across all ages and the percentage increase or decrease compared to 13th May).
Blackburn with Darwen - 921 (10-14); 913 (15-19); 416.2 (all ages, up 264 percent)
Blackpool - 25 (10-14); 95 (15-19); 28.7 (all ages, down 23 percent)
Burnley - 174 (10-14); 126 (15-19); 114.7 (all ages, up 112 percent)
Chorley - 157 (10-14); 272 (15-19); 91.4 (all ages, up 134 percent)
Fylde - 643 (10-14); 106 (15-19); 68.1 (all ages, up 513 percent)
Hyndburn - 210 (10-14); 326 (15-19); 162.9 (all ages, up 312 percent)
Lancaster - 26 (10-14); 67 (15-19); 26.7 (all ages, down 7 percent)
Pendle - 168 (10-14); 119 (15-19); 83.6 (all ages, up 87 percent)
Preston - 281 (10-14); 314 (15-19); 112.5 (all ages, up 228 percent)
Ribble Valley - 212 (10-14); 338 (15-19); 129.7 (all ages, up 890 percent)
Rossendale - 1,181 (10-14); 947 (15-19); 316.2 (all ages, up 1,409 percent)
South Ribble - 122 (10-14); 327 (15-19); 105.6 (all ages, up 386 percent)
West Lancashire - 30 (10-14); 27 (15-19); 15.2 (all ages, up 11 percent)
Wyre - 16 (10-14); 110 (15-19); 15.2 (all ages, down 22 percent)
MIND YOUR MASKS - DOES YOUR CHILD KNOW WHAT TO DO?
Schools in all parts of Lancashire except Blackpool were last month advised to continue to ensure their pupils wear masks in classrooms and communal areas - in spite of that recommendation being dropped at a national level.
Government guidance remains in place for how masks should be handled wherever they continue to be used.
To wear a face covering safely, you should:
***Clean your hands before and after touching it – including to remove it or put it on.
***Store face coverings in individual, sealable plastic bags between use.
***Not touch the front of face coverings during use or when removing them.
***Dispose of temporary face coverings in a ‘black bag’ waste bin - not a recycling bin.
***Not continue to use a mask if it becomes damp.
Source: Department for Education