Blackpool's health boss says school remains 'absolutely the best place for children to be' despite outbreaks and previous calls to lower testing threshold

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Blackpool's director of public health said he agrees with the Government's decision to keep schools open during the second national lockdown, which starts tomorrow, despite recently lowering the threshold for coronavirus testing.

Dr Arif Rajpura, who two months ago ordered headteachers to send youngsters home to be tested for Covid-19 even if they show unofficial mild symptoms such as tiredness or a headache, today said: "Considering the detrimental impact of being away from the education system, as well as the low risk of Covid-19 to young people, school is absolutely the best place for children to be."

He released a statement via the council's press office after a second resort school was forced to close its doors after an outbreak, with seven staff at Moor Park Primary, in Moor Park Avenue, Bispham, confirmed to have the disease, with some "quite poorly" according to headteacher Joanne Magson.

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Mrs Magson, who is herself isolating, said in a letter to parents: "I am dreadfully sorry for the inconvenience this causes to you and your families, but the safety and well-being of the children and staff of Moor Park is and has to be my main priority.

Dr Arif Rajpura, who was given Facebook updates on the coronavirus pandemicDr Arif Rajpura, who was given Facebook updates on the coronavirus pandemic
Dr Arif Rajpura, who was given Facebook updates on the coronavirus pandemic

"We are all in this extremely challenging and worrying situation and it is imperative we all continue to do what we can to limit the spread of this deadly virus."

Like many other resort schools, Moor Park had already recorded a positive case, with a class bubble sent home after a pupil was diagnosed with Covid last month.

While some headteachers echoed a council PR offensive, which coincided with the new academic year in September and moved to reassure parents that schools are safe, Mrs Magson had earlier warned in a frank admission it would be impossible to guarantee children would not be exposed to the coronavirus.

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While "robust and vigilant" plans were drawn up, she added: "I am unable to guarantee that social distancing measures will always be possible."

At least 11 local schools have been forced to send pupils home to self-isolate, The Gazette reported in September, just weeks after youngsters returned to the classroom.

At the time just one, Westcliff Primary Academy in Crawford Avenue, Bispham, needed to shut completely, with Dr Rajpura saying that, in most cases, the measures put in place to protect children, including dividing them into 'bubbles', which are sent home to isolate if someone in it is diagnosed with Covid, had worked.

But the scale of disruption was laid bare in fresh figures earlier this week, which revealed that, on October 16, 291 resort pupils and 29 school workers were in isolation.

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Although fewer will have caught the virus, the exact number was not known.

Dr Rajpura said: "We remain in full agreement with the decision to keep schools open following the announcement of further national restrictions.

"Prior to the return of pupils in September, we worked closely with schools to confirm that they were all Covid-secure.

"We are continuing to work alongside every school to ensure that measures are being met and that protocols are being followed in the event of any positive cases.

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"Staff are being kept aware of the latest public health guidance and, with the support of our outbreak management hub, we have developed a strong understanding of how to respond should any outbreaks occur in schools."

At one resort school, staff expressed their alarm at a perceived lack of social distancing amongst workers after several were diagnosed with the virus over half-term.

The National Education Union (NEU) wants primary and secondary schools to close their doors to all but vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers during the second national lockdown, which starts on Thursday and is set to last until early December.

Lancashire branch health and safety officer Ian Watkinson said a fixed period of closure would be less disruptive than the current situation, which has seen a significant number sent home, some on multiple occasions.

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He said: "None of us want schools shut, but we can’t have safe communities without safe schools – and they’re not safe.

Mr Watkinson said secondary schools should adopt a “rota system” to reduce the number of pupils in class once the lockdown is over.

“There are different ways of doing blended learning – from live-streamed lessons to work online.

“But it’s working in sixth form colleges now and I know that there are secondary schools ready to go with it - the idea is that nobody misses out on their learning."

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Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire's director of public health, whose patch covers Fylde and Wyre, said there had not been a ”significant shift” in how the virus is spreading in the classroom.

“Because there is widespread community transmission, there will be bubbles that are asked to isolate," he said.

"But they are safe - we aren’t seeing a lot of outbreaks starting in education settings."

In contrast to the NEU’s position, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) said that it was “right to prioritise keeping pupils in school”.

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Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that the priority should be for schools to stay open.

But Tina Rothery, co-chairman of the Blackpool and Fylde Green Party, said: "It’s becoming increasingly clear that, no matter how much effort our wonderful teachers and staff are putting into keeping schools safe and open, there are growing problems.

"The figures just out show increasing numbers of students having to isolate and concerns being expressed by education unions.

"Government guidelines back in August clearly stated that secondary schools must be on a remote learning rota or closed when the threat of the virus increases and it is doing just that, right now.

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"There is a need for the provision of spaces for pupils whose parents are essential workers and those with special needs but for the vast majority, an additional four weeks away from school is what the Green Party will be calling on the Government to implement."

The Department of Health moved to dismiss those calls, saying: "We are prioritising children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing by keeping nurseries, schools, colleges and universities open.

"The chief and deputy chief medical officers have highlighted the risks of not being in education on their development and mental health.”

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