Nadhim Zahawi last week became the latest occupant of the education secretary’s chair, and coming from his previous role as vaccines minister, he is in the perfect position to make the call on the offer of the jab to 12 to 15- year-olds.
Throughout the pandemic, schools have recognised the need to fulfil requests from government on testing and any required mitigations against the spread of Covid. We at BKHS had bubbled year groups and remote learning; teachers rapidly developing their teaching as they moved from room to room and communicated through a computer screen.
We had to test pupils in school and distribute thousands of lateral flow tests for home. In that sense we see no dilemma in facilitating the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds within school.
A fortnight ago we completed another round of in-school testing, which required us to provide and train staff to deliver the mammoth task of administering around 3000 tests in all. By comparison, we are pleased to see that the NHS are taking full responsibility for the vaccinations.
“We see no dilemma in facilitating the vaccination programme for 12 to15-year-olds within school.”
Schools will provide the venues and the children, but the NHS will be the providers of information about the benefits and potential side-effects of the vaccine. It helps us as school leaders to be that one step removed from advising parents and children about whether to have the jab – we will simply recommend following medical advice.
I absolutely recognise it is for parents and the pupils themselves to decide whether or not to have the vaccine – and I am encouraging the children to have that conversation at home. The JCVI’s recommendation not to vaccinate children of this age did muddy the waters – from conversations with some of our parents I know there is anxiety in many quarters.
My understanding is that there is a marginal direct net benefit to children from the vaccine. I know of a couple of children who have been among the few made very poorly by Covid, and who may have been spared had they been vaccinated, but I also recognise that some children could have a bad reaction to the vaccine. In that sense I understand the JCVI’s recommendation in balancing those direct benefits and risks for the children.
But vaccination is about more than the individual receiving it. We are told that children who are vaccinated are less likely to spread the virus to others in the community, whether that is their relatives at home or the staff within the school.
“Vaccination is about more than the individual receiving it.”
BKHS is a city-centre school with secondary pupils based on two sites in Coventry. Anything that affects the wider community will affect all of us. The higher the vaccination rate, the faster the virus should be suppressed.
If a wider take-up of the vaccine slashes the chances of further educational disruption, those indirect benefits to children seem compelling. Keeping children out of further lockdowns is a priority for schools and government alike. We know the impact of the past 18 months has been significant on children in so many ways: mental health issues amplified by extended periods of isolation; loss of learning, potentially limiting future prospects; anxiety about the welfare of relatives and friends who have been struck by the virus.
Headlines last week reported that schools had been threatened for “coercing” children into taking the vaccine. That now seems like a non-story because, of course, parents and children need to consent to any such medical intervention. I strongly recommend families have the discussion at home and the children are involved in those discussions – my experience is that they have very sensible opinions when issues like this are talked through properly.
“Children have very sensible opinions when issues like this are talked through properly.”
Vaccinations for seasonal flu are also due to be coming to schools in the near future. The double jab option is something being looked at (Covid vaccine in your left arm, flu vaccine in your right) – that would limit disruption, and I hope the advice is that having the two together makes no difference to the overall risk to children.
We are worried about the impact both of rising covid rates but also flu, norovirus and other nasty bugs that might emerge. We have to maintain the improved hygiene standards that the pandemic drove. That way I hope we see children and staff in school as much as possible this winter.