It’s about Protection, not Safety: why we decided not to send our children to school (for now).
My sons want to go to school. Vishnu is almost five and he’s starting reception at a nearby primary; he is bouncing off the walls at home, eager to make new friends, and has spotted a frame in the playground to climb. Kailash is eleven, starting year seven at a school he loves a 40-minute bus ride away; a world free of our parental gaze awaits, full of Art lessons, new languages, table tennis tournaments, and banter with people his own age.
I want them to go too, and so does my wife Siva, their mum. We have been parenting 24/7 without a break since March and have rarely had time alone together. We have ample living space and are lucky to have jobs we can do mostly from home — she’s an academic lawyer and I direct a research institute — but we are at critical stages of our career where we would gladly work ten-hour days, but have had to with about a third of that, on good days. We are coping, but tired, tested, and approaching burn out.
Their schools have been sending us excited emails for weeks. The UK government has threatened to fine parents who don’t send their children to school. Yet, despite all this, after weeks of consideration, we have decided not to send them to school.
As a family, we are acutely aware of something that is often downplayed, namely that children transmit the virus to adults. We have two clinically vulnerable adults at home. I’m a type-one diabetic and my mother-in-law is type-two (and Indian, and over 70 — risk factors) which means that sending Vishnu and Kailash to school at the present time introduces a level of risk to the family that is credibly existential in nature, however unlikely the worst-case scenarios may be. We were in the category of people who were asked to ‘shield’ — basically to stay at home — before shielding was unceremoniously dropped as a concept, without the underlying rationale for it changing significantly.
Risk is always about hazard and harm — how likely the bad thing is to happen, and how bad the bad thing will be if it does. The COVID hazard fluctuates for everyone, but for most people without underlying conditions, the prospective harm is generally quite low, so it represents a mild to moderate risk overall.
For the clinically vulnerable (and even more so for the extremely vulnerable) the risk equation looks different. The harm is potentially very high, so personally I see COVID as a moderate to major risk to me personally, and therefore to the long term wellbeing of the family as a whole. I might not get the virus at all, I might shake it off easily, but there is a serious possibility of long term damage to already compromised health, or worse; as a type-one diabetic over forty, my mortality risk is about three and a half times higher than others of the same profile.[i]
We have followed scientific developments and public health advice closely, and it is generally confusing (a dark statistic: there has been about 1 academic research paper on COVID per 16 people who have died from COVID). Nonetheless, we have managed to make five judgment calls that shaped our decision:
1) Children are often asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and may transmit it as much or perhaps even more than adults.[ii]
2) The virus spreads at least partly, and probably mostly, through aerosol transmission.[iii]
3) The risk of infection in schools is closely related to existing community transmission. In London secondary schools, students often travel significant distances to attend, so the community in question is in principle more dispersed than most.[iv]
4) Infection levels are currently rising across the UK and are likely to rise further (perhaps particularly in London) as schools and universities open and people are encouraged to go back to offices.[v]
Taken together, those factors mean it is only a matter of time — and probably not much time — before there is an infection in one of our son’s year groups and/or the school, and, more importantly, one that may only be caught long after scores of other children have been infected.
There is a limit to what any school with hundreds of pupils can do to limit the risk of transmission, short of having lessons outside. Given that this is rarely feasible, especially in the approaching winter months, we feel schools should continue to give families that are particularly vulnerable to the virus the option to continue learning at home. If that is not considered a reasonable adjustment by the school there is a moral (and probably legal) case for parents to be allowed to keep their children at home without losing their school places or incurring fines.
“…We don’t have a word for safety in Aboriginal languages…There are words for protection, though, and protection is a very different thing because protection has agency as part of it. Your protection is your responsibility. Then you have agency in ensuring your safety. But also in our communities, you’re not just responsible for your own protection but the active protection, not just passive safety, of all the people around you. And so that means that you’re watching their back. They’re watching your back. And in a group, you are protected. And there’s power in that, and that power has been taken away.”
That power has indeed been taken away, in this case by the UK government making attendance mandatory and threatening fines for parents who don’t send their children. By doubling down on the questionable claim that something is safe for children in one context, they have delegitimized the parental agency to protect more generally. Our early impression is that this decision may also have the effect of reducing the social solidarity to protect each other, making families who don’t send their children to school deviant, as if they don’t care about their children’s education or wellbeing, when in most cases that’s not true at all. We’ve made the judgment that protecting the health of the children's family is of greater value than what will hopefully be a short spell away from school.
The safety of the schools is a matter beyond our control, but the protection of the children is our parental duty until we forgo that right. In cases of abuse, the state has to protect children from their parents, but there are moments, like now, when parents may have to protect their children from the state. The state is not protecting children from the threat COVID places to them outside the school gates that is nonetheless directly caused by attending school, so it’s our job to do that.
Consider yesterday’s statement by the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Witty on behalf of all the public health bodies of the UK, an apparently comprehensive and reassuring statement, but one where the critical question of whether and to what extent children infect adults was thoroughly hedged:
“Current international evidence suggests transmission of COVID-19 from children of school age to their parents or other adults at home is relatively rare compared to transmission by adults, but this evidence is weak. Teenagers may be more likely to transmit to adults than other children.”
Read those words from the perspective of public safety and it might sound passable, but read it carefully from the standpoint of parental protection and several words look like credible threats in disguise: ‘Current’ (but maybe not for long) ‘suggests’ (but doesn’t show) ‘relatively’ (but still enough) ‘weak’ (and therefore not trustworthy) ‘may’ (and may not).
We are aware that scientific findings are contradictory or confounding, and we understand this is a challenging time to be any kind of public leader; many different values, priorities, risk appetites, and preferences have to be considered and balanced. Still, from the perspective of a shielding family, we cannot fully trust the government or even their medical officers to have our best interests at heart. Public leaders (in principle) have the interests of the whole in mind and have to make policy accordingly, but our responsibility is to use our agency to protect our family in the first instance, as long as that protection does not cause harm to others.
COVID has reminded us all that our health is not our own — we are biologically interdependent and part of the same ecosystem — but it hasn’t changed the fact that our children are our own. In the context of decisions about school attendance in a pandemic, there is an important asymmetry compared to some related public health decisions. If you don’t vaccinate, or don’t keep your distance or don’t wear a mask in contexts where such things are called for — you may be figuratively poisoning the well, and undermining public health. But if you keep your children at home, and look after and educate them as well as you can until you feel going to school is not a serious threat to the family (and therefore the children), you are not obviously harming anyone, and may even be helping the wider public health cause.
So overall here’s how we see it:
Schools have a duty of care towards children, but not their parents.
Parents have a duty of care towards their children, but not their schools.
The UK government has made attendance mandatory on the questionable grounds that it is safe for children to return.
Children need healthy parents more than they need schools (they need both).
It is the duty of parents to protect their children from harm, including ensuring they are socialised and educated, but also not putting them in a position where they might unintentionally harm their own parents.
That is the framing in which we have decided, for now, not to send them to school. The situation is far from ideal, and we trust that this is a temporary position. Schools may soon have to close to some extent anyway, or perhaps the replication number will fall well below 1.0, or perhaps a vaccine will be available sooner rather than later. For now, we’ll try to plan our days and weeks well, educate our children as well as we can from home, hopefully with some help from the schools. And we’ll keep observing the situation. But we have decided, for now, to protect ourselves, and thereby protect our children.
Jonathan Rowson is the Director of Perspectiva, writing in a personal capacity. He is the author of The Moves that Matter: a chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life. He tweets @Jonathan_Rowson