Guest, a head teacher at an elementary school in Birmingham, England, scoured Amazon for affordable air purifiers in the hopes of stopping the more transmissible Omicron variant from spreading among his 460 students, who are between 3 and 11 years old.
“I got what I think is the best air purifier for the budget I have available. I hope I’ve got something that’s doing the job, but I’m not an expert. And there’s been no guidance put out by the Department for Education. I’ve had to do it all myself, and I shouldn’t have to do that when it’s a national crisis,” Guest said.
Millions of British students have returned to school following the Christmas and New Year holidays, amid a record surge in infections and hospitalizations. For teachers and parents, the situation has brought a grim sense of déjà vu. Unlike last January, when the rampaging Alpha variant plunged the United Kingdom into another lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has decided to “ride out” the Omicron wave with limited restrictions and to keep schools open, citing the toll remote education has taken on students’ mental health and learning.
“It’s woefully inadequate,” said Guest of the government’s measures. “They keep saying education is their number one priority. It’s clear it absolutely isn’t.” Last Wednesday, five of his staff, including three of his 15 classroom teachers, were out sick or isolating — the most absent from Guest’s school since the start of the pandemic — and he said he feared more would follow.
Omicron appears to be causing milder illness than previous variants, but early research has also suggested that Omicron may trigger more upper-airway problems, which can be more dangerous for young children, potentially leading to croup and bronchiolitis.
“This narrative that it’s just a mild virus is not accurate,” Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director for vaccine development at Texas Children’s Hospital, told CNN’s Jake Tapper last week, remarking on the surge in Covid-19 hospitalizations at America’s largest pediatric hospital.
“We’ve just done a terrible job vaccinating our kids across the country. … So even though there’s a lot of happy talk about the Omicron variant, less severe disease, when you add up all the factors … we’ve got a very serious situation facing us in this country, especially for the kids.”
About 17% of US children age 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated; the vast majority of children in hospital in the US are unvaccinated, according to CDC director Rochelle Walensky.
“We’re going to see a big surge in kids. And it’s going to be very, very disruptive,” Pagel said. “Their teachers are going to get it, and probably in about a month or two, their parents are going to get it. We’re going to see a prolonged high level of infection.”
Pagel, a member of Independent SAGE, a group of expert scientific advisers unaffiliated with the government, said the British government has been an outlier in its attitude to infections in children and has failed to use mitigation strategies deployed successfully elsewhere — crucially, ventilation and masks.
As students return to school amid Omicron, many scientists and public health experts are asking: If keeping schools open is so important for children, then why are we skimping on measures that could protect them?
“It’s quite terrifying looking at the number of children who are being infected and hospitalized every week. And the fact that they are going into schools now with a highly transmissible variant with almost no mitigations and with the vast majority unvaccinated,” Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, said of the situation in England. “The rhetoric still very much seems to be to keep schools open at all costs … rather than the real discussion we should be having, which is how do we keep schools open safely.
“I’m not even sure many parents realize the sort of risks that children are facing every day. And there are countries that have done so much better than us,” she added, noting successes in Southeast Asia and Western Europe, particularly in curtailing airborne transmission.
The same strategies that have made Southeast and East Asia so successful at suppressing the virus — widespread mask use, improved ventilation, comprehensive contact testing and tracing programs, and supported isolation — have also allowed them to limit disruption to education, Gurdasani said, flagging public health measures in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. They’ve also remained dynamic, shifting protective measures depending on cases, and quickly moving to hybrid learning.
Gurdasani, who is immunosuppressed, was anxious to send her 6-year-old daughter to school this week. She said she had been trying to get HEPA filtration devices into her classroom for six months before a charity agreed to fund them. Her daughter, who has asthma, wore an N95 mask on her first day back — but she was the only one in her class wearing a face covering.
“She’s a shy child, and nobody in her school is wearing masks, nobody at all. And, you know, she feels very out of place, and as a 6-year-old, that’s very hard. But I don’t know what else to do.”