Teacher, health practitioner and founder of The New School, Lucy Stephens, shares her concerns about the impact the new proposals for schools could have on child development, emotional health and wellbeing
As the debate rages about whether or not schools should reopen, I believe that we need a critical lens on the situation. As a new school we have been monitoring updates and advice from the Government and the Department for Education (DfE). Whilst I appreciate that we are trying to avoid a second spike in Coronavirus cases, coming from a nutritional therapy and psychoneuroimmunology background, social distancing and hygiene rules that are in direct opposition to what we know about child development, in order to get children back to school, is incredibly concerning.
Children and young people are social by nature, they thrive on contact with both peers and adults – this is how they learn, through interaction and reading the social cues of others. They have active imaginations and learn best through play – not desk based classrooms empty of soft furnishings, toys, or materials. Their nervous system ‘reads and responds’ to their environment and particularly that of adults, and so they are sensitive to anxiety and fear created by an unnatural focus on hygiene and germs. They need to move often – not sit at separate desks or stand in a chalked square by themselves at playtime. They need a level of structure and boundaries, but not excessive toilet or handwashing rotas, lines to demarcate which way around a school they should move, or newly created ‘bubbles of children’ who can’t come into contact with other bubbles. Their immune system relies on dirt and everyday germs – it literally ‘primes’ itself. Overzealous hygiene in children is linked to many adult diseases, particularly allergies.
The forest school at The New School
Is this justified in the name of ‘risk assessment’?
The difficulty that we have is that we’ve spent the last couple of months following a particular scientific narrative but we need to remember that the position the UK took in relation to COVID-19 is not the only scientific narrative. It’s understandable that parents and teachers are reticent about going back to school, but other countries have done it differently and are no worse off. There is lot of independent science that we don’t hear about, that paints a different picture. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child’s Health (RCPCH) has a great summary document that schools can refer to that has a balanced synopsis of the evidence to date and most papers concur that the children are low risk, both in terms of their susceptibility to disease and their risk to others from spreading disease.
Research in the British Medical Journal disputes the claim that children are ‘super spreaders’1 just like they are with other respiratory viruses like the flu. The available evidence shows that children have much less serious disease than adults, most are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms, as compared to other respiratory viruses (which we don’t close schools for), and even the asymptomatic are very unlikely to pass on infection2.
The research also shows that they are much less likely to spread infection so they are not the ones that create any additional risk for teachers3. Even for children who are immunocompromised due to treatment or disease1 there still doesn’t appear to be an increased risk. The new Kawasaki-like vasculitis - a rare inflammatory condition that has been highlighted by the media – is as rare as many other serious infection related syndromes in children, and whilst the science is not robust enough yet, what we do know about Kawasaki disease in general is that it is associated with very low vitamin D levels4. Low Vitamin D levels have been shown to be related to worse outcomes from serious COVID-19, and we also know that Government recommendations of vitamin D intake are well below what most people need for immune function and reducing inflammation5. The darker your skin, the more vitamin D you need. It’s a quick and simple test if you want to know your levels see here.
At this time when we’ve had pause to think and reflect on our education system and how we’d like it to change when schools reopen, 70% of parents (Teacher Tapp 19th May 2020) agree that schools should prioritise social and emotional learning and whole-child development in their longer-term goals. And yet, we’re being asked to create social distancing environments that are in direct opposition to normal, healthy, child development and that will directly compromise children’s social and emotional health.
So what should we do?
If the RCPCH concludes that the risk for children, and from children, is significantly less than it is for other respiratory viruses, and when we look at the 22 EU countries who are reopening schools there has been no second spike of infection, so our position is that school’s should open. But socially distant classrooms are not scientifically justified, or morally justified when we take into account healthy child development.
A common sense strategy put together by the Alliance for Natural Health for school reopening, using all of the available evidence, could look like this:
Staged school reopening – youngest ages, smaller schools first – just in case of an increase in infection rates
Infra-red temperature recording twice a day at school (e.g. start and finish) – no contact, no increased surveillance, but makes people feel safer
Normal handwashing with regular soap (don’t overdo it, or use toxic anti-bacterials on kids skin that cause rashes and remove all ‘normal’ bacteria)
Staff trained to identify and report symptoms (to kick off track and trace)
Test, track and tracing system must be in place (apparently it’s imminent)
Quarantining following identified cases and exposures
Antibody testing offered to staff who have previously experienced Covid-like symptoms
No social distancing in classes, but additional time spent outdoors (normal activities) social distancing in schools and nurseries is #NotOk.
Staff considered ‘extremely’ vulnerable who have received a doctor’s letter should avoid returning to schools Mask use by staff optional, although visors that don’t interfere with non-verbal communication are preferable if a mask is chosen. The variable science does not warrant mask use outside of a critical care environment – have a read of this6.
Advice given to parents on maintaining or improving immune resilience with vitamin C , vitamin D and zinc as a minimum. Supporting immune resilience is possibly the most empowering thing Governments could share with us right now. Supporting children to be active, spending time outdoors in the dirt to boost their natural microbiomes (‘healthy gut bacteria’) and eating a balanced diet with lots of different coloured fruit and vegetables.
Ultimately, if our primary objective is to prioritise the safety of our children, our families and our wider community, this must also include young people’s social and emotional health, which should be at the forefront of decisions made about social distancing in school environments and balanced through evidencing a broader range of scientific opinion.
What do you think?
1 Munro, A. & Faust, S. (2020) Children are not COVID-19 super spreaders: time to go back to school 2 Gao, M., Yang, L., Chen, X., Deng, Y., Yang, S., Xu, H., Chen, Z. & Gao, X. (2020) A Study on Infectivity of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Carriers 3 Lavezzo, E., Franchin, E. et al. (2020) Suppression of COVID-19 outbreak in the municipality of Vo’, Italy. 4 Stagi, S., Rigante, D., Lepri, G., Matucci, M. & Fernanda Falcini (2015) Severe vitamin D deficiency in patients with Kawasaki disease: a potential role in the risk to develop heart vascular abnormalities? 5 Papadimitriou, D., (2017). The big vitamin D mistake. 6 Hall, D. (2020) The smile behind the mask, don’t forget the bubbles.
About Lucy Stephens
Lucy is the Founder, Director and Co-Headteacher of a new non fee-paying democratic school opening in West Norwood in September 2020. She is a qualified teacher, with a PCGE from Cambridge, a 1st Class Hons in Social Psychology, a 1st Class Hons in Nutrition and Herbal Medicine, and a Diploma in Psychoneuroimmunology (Evolutionary Biology). Lucy started her career in teaching to make a difference - but she learned from the outset that we need to think differently about our teaching practices. Recognising that the systems and structures inherent in our education system contribute to only a small minority 'succeeding', and the outcomes-based performance and accountability culture limits our ability to include all young people; she left teaching to work for The Prince's Trust, the leading youth charity supporting NEET young people. This furthered her awareness of the many young people disengaged from education, through dropping out, being excluded, or being present in the classroom but mentally disengaging. Her deep love for knowledge, led her to research health education in relation to children and families, the body and mind from the perspective of attachment, and the social and emotional needs of young people. Having her own children focused her attention on what an alternative democratic model of education could look like. Armed with the knowledge gained from across her career, Lucy created The New School to put her research into practice, to challenge the current educational paradigm, and in doing so seeks to address the many deeply entrenched problems in education and society.
ANH Note: The New School is a charity-funded independent school committed to offering a free education in order that income is not a barrier to a better education. The school, its founder and trustees feel that the rules and values of the education system must change in order to change the outcomes for young people. They are committed to thinking outside the box, to innovate and create a system that works for everyone, but most of all for the children to be taught at The New School. Visit The New School's Contact Page. For charitable donations please email Lucy Stephens at [email protected].