For a sense of perspective, look at the big picture

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If you’re still wondering what on earth happened last term, you can rest assured you are not alone. Over the next few weeks, if you’re not there already, you will be returning to a situation that will seem just as disjointed as that which you closed the doors on when you left for your summer break. 

This is where a sense of perspective comes in handy. This is, after all, a global situation, although that does not for one minute mean the response to the pandemic has been in any way coordinated. Knowing the constraints within which our peers operate can offer valuable insight along with reassurance that we’re in this together – a fact that we often need reminding of after months of isolation.

With this in mind, we have collated the various responses to the pandemic our readers have had to operate within as their education systems adapt to seven months of national intervention. 

The pandemic has had a tragic but varied impact on the different countries we report on. At 61.7 per 100,000, the United Kingdom has had the highest death rate, with the UAE lowest at 3.9 per 100,000. Within the United Kingdom, England has the highest rate and one of the highest rates among all countries. For all of these countries, the rolling seven day average death rate is now dramatically lower than at its peak in April and May, when everyone but Sweden chose to control the virus’s spread by imposing a lockdown resulting in some form of homeschooling.

Within England and Wales, these national figures hide the fact that local and demographic variations far outstrip national.  For example, by August 12, the Office for National Statistics reported that the death rate in Wales varied from 9.6 to 125.8, depending on location.  In England, the worst affected area was 172.7.  

There were similar variations between the provinces in Canada. Quebec (754/70) had double the infection cases and death rate per 100,000 than Ontario (307/21). However, by August 22, this had reduced to five and six reported deaths respectively over the previous seven days. In Quebec, with the population concentrated around Montreal, it follows that this area suffered the highest death rates. 

In order to monitor the spread of the virus, the focus now is on infection rates.  Here, area variations are greater than the differences between countries, with urban areas having higher rates than rural areas. For example, on August 22, Public Health England identified 29 areas of concern, of which they were intervening in 21. In these areas, the infection rate per 100,000 varied from 16.4 to 125.3. The average across England was 11.9.  In Wales, Cardiff (11.2) has the highest seven-day rolling average of infection cases per 100,000, which is below that of England.

Throughout the pandemic, Sweden has adopted a different approach to the other countries we cover.  It rejected a lockdown in favour of trusting its citizens with a high degree of social responsibility. As a result, while this has resulted in a comparatively high infection and death rate,  schools have been open throughout. Sweden hopes its approach will have led to the development of herd immunity, and it  expects not to be subjected to a second wave, which other European countries which opted for a lockdown approach are trying so desperately to hold off.   

When the figures are studied in detail, a common set of factors emerges . For example, Public Health England (PHE) has identified a number of factors which contribute to the variable death rates from area to area, the largest of which is age.  The organisation reported that “Among those already diagnosed with COVID- 19, people who were 80 or older were seventy times more likely to die than those under 40. Risk of dying among those diagnosed with COVID-19 was also higher in males than females; higher in those living in the more deprived areas than those living in the least deprived; and higher in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups than in White ethnic groups. These inequalities largely replicate existing inequalities in mortality rates in previous years, except for BAME groups, as mortality was previously higher in white ethnic groups.” 

PHE also found that compared to previous years, “A particularly high increase in all cause deaths among those born outside the UK and Ireland; those in a range of caring occupations including social care and nursing auxiliaries and assistants; those who drive passengers in road vehicles for a living including taxi and minicab drivers and chauffeurs; those working as security guards and related occupations; and those in care homes.”

Just as these characteristics among populations vary on a postcode basis, so the death and infection rate will vary from one school catchment to another.  With dramatic shifts occurring in the space of a few miles. This makes a national educational response difficult to implement in all locations. 

The other emerging evidence which is critical for schools is how infection rates vary from one age group to another and how infectious individuals are to others. On this matter, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, pronounced on August 22 that children were at greater risk from not attending school than from the virus. However, he did not include parents/carers or teachers in this, and there is a debate about whether this includes children over the age of 12.  

Overall, these figures and factors paint a far more optimistic picture than before the lockdown, but there remains cause for concern in schools relating to the makeup of their catchment and staff and the physical capacity of schools to provide the space for social distancing and the hygiene facilities required if they are to fully reopen.  Adding to this pressure is the political impatience for a return to “normality” with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson on August 9 stating that it was a “moral duty” to get all children back to school in September.  He reiterated this message on August 23, saying it was for their wellbeing and vitally important” for students to go back to school. He is understood to have made clear that schools will be the last to close in any future lockdown.

England has suffered the most of all the countries we cover, but all have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. As we have stated before, reopening schools safely is essential for the well being of the students we serve.  In our next few blogs we intend to report how you are responding to this challenge.  

Take care and stay safe

George